June 1, 2020
Blain Smith '20
The 20-Year Bachelor’s Degree
Blain Smith’s educational journey was one of stops and starts. Sometimes, the time was right, but the place was wrong. Other times, the place was right, but the time was wrong. Then he found SUNY Empire, and things … just clicked. This year, Blain, 38, graduates with his bachelor’s degree in computer science – an achievement 20 years in the making.
After graduating from high school in 2000, Smith enrolled in the computer science program at his first-choice college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He says it didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t quite ready for college or the three-hour distance between Troy and his Massachusetts home. At the end of his freshman year, he packed up his dorm room and transferred to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he contracted mononucleosis in his second year, putting him behind in school work and throwing him into a seemingly endless game of catch up. At the same time, he was changing his mind about his major, deciding to pursue his degree in the business end of computer science.
Enter Bentley College, known for its business and information technology curriculum, which Smith thought might be more marketable upon graduation. But Smith says that in his case, the third time was not the charm.
“I thought I would focus on a business-oriented technical degree. With mounting debt, it made sense so I could pay back my ever-increasing loans,” Smith explains. “As it turned out, I hated the business side of technology. My heart was on the scientific side, but it wasn’t marketable, so I made a very hard to decision to drop out of college completely.”
After working for a few years for a technology startup, Smith happened upon an ad in Craigslist for a position at Harvard University. He interviewed and was hired, spending the next five years working and taking advantage of the university’s course discount for employees, chipping away at his bachelor’s degree one course at a time. But outside of work, his life was changing.
Smith’s girlfriend, who had just finished her Ph.D. program, moved back to her home in Troy, New York. He says the long-distance relationship got old fast, so the couple purchased a condo in upstate New York, and Smith moved to be with her.
“I wanted to put down roots, so, once again, I made the choice to drop out of college completely to work,” he says. “I decided to accept that I would never earn my degree.”
Smith found work as a software engineer at a Capital Region startup, where he had the chance to attend a tech conference that changed everything.
“Some of the talks weren’t on common subject matter – they really got deep into computer science. I gravitated toward it,” Smith says. “In my educational career, I never made it far enough to get into those upper-level classes about computer theory and hardware. That was my drive – to take those upper-level courses and finish it.”
At this point, Smith was a father with a young son and was working full time while building a house.
“I didn’t have the time or the means to just stop all of that and return to college full time, taking classes during the day. I set out to find a college that accommodated working adults,” he recalls. “I looked at RPI again, but logistically it wasn’t going to work out. I also looked into online programs, but it seemed to be a new concept for most of the brick-and-mortar schools. I wasn’t getting a good vibe that if I did online courses at a school that only kind of knew what it was doing, it’d be a frustrating process.”
Then he found SUNY Empire State College.
“SUNY Empire was essentially in my back yard, and their focus is offering degree programs online for adults. This sounded like a perfect choice for someone like me,” he says. “Reviews and anecdotal information backed it up. This college understands you have a life and a family and a job.”
He spent the next three years taking courses to earn his bachelor’s degree in computer science, designing a rigorous program with his mentor in case he someday applies to graduate school.
“I could see the light at the end of the very long tunnel I entered 20 years ago as an 18-year-old kid,” he says.
Now, with graduation day fast approaching, Smith says the journey was well worth it.
“As I grew personally, I knew what I was capable of, and what I wanted out of my education. The SUNY Empire vision meshed with what I wanted: to get the courses I wanted to build a reputable degree and course set based on industry standards, but still with the understanding that I have a life,” Smith says.
And as a first-generation college student, he says he’s also made his family proud.
“Since there can’t be an actual graduation ceremony this year [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], my mom seems to think she’s going to make me walk up and down the stair landing in my house, which is only four stairs,” he laughs. “Once Massachusetts opens up, I’m sure my parents will be out here to help us celebrate.”
*Read Blain's 2017 feature when he started his journey with SUNY Empire.