WORCESTER — If it’s mid-afternoon, you’ll find Michael Vaudreuil down at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Kaven Hall. The hall is home to two of the school’s engineering departments, and Vaudreuil is its custodian. So he’s a busy guy.
Vaudreuil, 54, will clean the restrooms, vacuum the carpets in nearby offices, scrub the floors, clean the chalkboards, and pick up the trash.
On Saturday morning, Vaudreuil has one more thing to pick up.
He’ll exchange his work clothes for a cap and gown, and collect his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“I’d read stories like this and I always wondered whether I could ever have that in my life,’’ he said. “And now I’m here.’’
That disbelief is founded in a personal journey whose most memorable mileposts are heartbreak and hardship, resiliency and resurrection.
Vaudreuil (pronounced VO-dray) is the third of four children born to a Worcester machine shop operator and a stay-at-home mom. He graduated from Shrewsbury High School and earned an associate’s degree in aeronautical technology from Wentworth Institute of Technology.
His timing was bad. Airline deregulation in 1978 triggered a mild recession in that industry, so Vaudreuil — always a handy guy — turned to plastering. He excelled at it. During the boom years of the ’80s, he was making good money. But things began to sour in early 2007, and then, when the Great Recession began late that year, so did financial ruin.
“The house was on the line,’’ he said. “By early November, I was done. I couldn’t sustain it anymore. I was out of business.’’
The house was gone. So were his savings. His vehicles had been repossessed. In a way, so had any spark of hope.
“I was getting pretty depressed,’’ he said. “I’m supposed to be the breadwinner. I’m supposed to go out there and kill the meal and bring it home, and I wasn’t doing that. I was feeling a tremendous loss of confidence. My ego was taking a big hit. I was just a shell of a person. It was a meaningless existence at that point.’’
He then found work at WPI, becoming a full-time custodian in April 2008. He was still doing a plastering gig or two on the side. But there was something about his academic surroundings, an energy that fairly vibrated off the students, that impressed him.
At the time, he was in his mid-40s — and surrounded by kids who were native to the digital world. For him, it’s a late-in-life skill.
“The thought process was: This is it for me,’’ Vaudreuil told me Thursday afternoon as workers prepared for commencement. “This is the last train out of the station. Your back’s against the cliff. You either jump off, or you fight for your life.’’
He fought. Sometimes he fought self-doubt. Sometimes he fought depression. Sometimes he wanted to quit. His wife, Joyce, wouldn’t let him.
“It was just too much stress,’’ he said. “I was overwhelmed. But she let me cry on her shoulder. She was my cheerleader. Sometimes it was a kick in the pants: Get out there.’’
The energy he’d detected in the students he cleaned up after grew into a genuine magnetic force. No one called him “Old Man.’’ There were no snickers. There were no handouts, either. WPI requires a lot of group academic work, and Vaudreuil was welcomed into that group. “They challenged me,’’ he said.
Along the way Vaudreuil — whose grade-point average is 3.65 — surely taught his fellow students a lesson as great as any they learned in the classroom.
And it’s this: “You’ve got to stay in the batter’s box and keep swinging,’’ he said. “You swing and you miss. You swing and you miss. And your motivation goes down and you get tired or maybe you go home with your bat. But stay in there. Keep swinging.’’
His wife, his father, and his three children will be at Saturday’s commencement. Like most of his 900 classmates, he alternates between excitement and anxiety.
Vaudreuil plans to do his share of celebrating this weekend. But not too much.
By Monday, long after his classmates have packed up and scattered, he’ll be back on campus for his afternoon custodial shift.
While he cleans the place, he’ll be waiting for the phone to ring, hoping for a job offer — a guy supremely prepared for whatever life throws at him.