‘You can do anything you want’
Man who dropped out of high school navigates grueling schedule to earn degrees
By CATHY DYSON
Michael Pulley went from being a high school dropout to a corporate trainer with two college degrees, including one earned with highest honors.
When he decided—three years after high school—that he needed a better education, the Spotsylvania County man underwent an arduous schedule to get it.
He worked full time—juggling as many as three jobs at one point—and maintained a full-time class load. He attended Germanna Community College, then the University of Richmond.
In the midst of all this, he and his wife, Amanda, both 26, became parents to Jackson, who was born with a heart murmur and needed surgery.
Jackson is 4 now and doing fine. It’s his parents who have to stop and catch their breath when they think about everything that’s happened in the last five years.
“It’s like a whirlwind,” Amanda said. “When you’re going through it, you don’t know how you’re going to do it, but once it’s done, you look back and realize what a big accomplishment it was.
“It shows you can do anything you want if you work hard enough.”
BORED IN SCHOOL
In high school, Michael was smart and did well on tests, Amanda said. The two had classes together at Massaponax High School, but never dated, and Michael eventually moved near Richmond.
She was on one side of the motivational divide, and he was on the other.
She graduated a year early, in 2003, and he dropped out in his senior year, in 2004. He was two credits short of graduating and didn’t want to go to summer school.
Michael was too bored to do the required work in class or at home.
“I just didn’t care about school,” he said.
Michael thought that full-time work as an auto mechanic would be more rewarding.
After three years of tearing down motors and rebuilding transmissions, Michael realized how exhausting the work was. He believes being an auto mechanic is “a noble occupation,” but wanted something else for his life.
FEAR OF FAILING
In 2006, he and Amanda started seeing each other, and Michael hid the fact that he didn’t have a diploma. His sister let it slip at a family gathering.
“He was embarrassed by it,” Amanda said.
She encouraged him to get his GED, equivalent to a high school diploma. He was so afraid of failing, he didn’t take the test the first time it was scheduled.
When he decided to go through with it in 2007, he worked with Linda Govenides in Stafford County’s Alternative Education Office because Spotsylvania classes were filled.
“He passed with flying colors,” she said, and she encouraged him to keep going with his education. “He put his nose to the grindstone and held it all together and kept getting fantastic grades.”
PLENTY OF SETBACKS
The young family faced plenty of setbacks.
Three days after Jackson was born, in March 2008, Michael went back to work at his mechanic’s job—and got laid off.
Work was hard to find in a struggling economy.
“No one was interested in hiring a high school dropout,” Michael said.
Because of Jackson’s heart problem, the young family had to have insurance. They got coverage through COBRA, an expensive plan paid through Michael’s former job.
It cost $900 a month—more than the couple spent on rent at the time. The Pulleys had to move in with her parents, Jeff and Rosanne Rainville.
Michael already had started at Germanna by then. For several months, he got up at 3 in the morning to load packages on post office trucks, then worked full time, sealing and striping parking lots.
At night, he went to school.
He earned his associate’s degree in general studies and a certificate in general education in August 2010. He made the dean’s list four of five semesters.
He was excited about a bachelor degree program through the University of Richmond. It was designed for working adults and held on Friday nights and Saturdays at Germanna.
There weren’t enough applicants when he applied, and he was told to try the next year.
Michael was too eager to wait. He asked if he could attend classes at the Richmond campus and was admitted.
“I didn’t apply myself in high school, but once I got a little bit more mature and got started [in college], I definitely wanted to keep going,” he said.
PLATE WAS OVERFLOWING
At the “U of R,” Michael’s ability to focus on extensive reading and writing exercises was put to the test.
His bachelor of liberal arts in interdisciplinary studies entailed a “buffet of courses” in a condensed time frame. He studied a mixture of art and history, business and science.
He read everything from the poems of Chaucer to the leadership style of Abraham Lincoln.
“There were nights he didn’t go to bed,” Amanda said. “I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘He stayed up all night studying. I don’t know how he’s going to stay awake all day.’ ”
Amanda’s mother remembers those conversations.
“His plate was definitely overflowing,” said Rainville, a well-known portrait photographer.
Rainville has two daughters and said she considers Michael the son she never had. She knows how hard he worked—and how fortunate he was to have “the best cheerleader” at his side.
Amanda, who cheered competitively at Massaponax, encouraged Michael to keep going, when the schedule of classes, tests and reading assignments—and work shifts—were overwhelming.
“She is annoyingly persistent,” Michael said, smirking.
Michael got several scholarships, but will pay off the rest—which totals about $22,000—through student loans.
‘YOU’RE SO CLOSE’
There were times when Michael was ready to take off a semester and Amanda urged him to keep going, saying “you’re so close.”
Some mornings, he had to ask her what he had to do that day because his activities were such a blur.
Amanda, who works as an insurance agent in her father’s office, knows something about college degrees. She earned a bachelor’s at Virginia Commonwealth University and finished a master’s from the University of Mary Washington while she was pregnant.
She said both experiences paled in comparison to the schedule Michael kept.
“The day I graduated with my master’s doesn’t compare to how proud I was of him when he got his bachelor’s,” she said. “He had to work so much harder to get where he got.
“I always knew he could do it,” Amanda added.
MANAGER THEN TRAINER
About six months after Michael lost his mechanic’s job, a friend mentioned that Sprint was hiring and urged Michael to apply.
His self-confidence dipped again, and he put off calling because he didn’t want to fail.
When he got up the nerve to apply, he was hired as a sales and service specialist at Adcomm Digitel, cqa Sprint third-party retail store.
Within two years, he was promoted to manager of the Stafford store. In August 2012, he took over the facility near Spotsylvania Towne Centre and became a corporate trainer.
“He never wavered from his work,” said Jay Spitler, Michael’s first manager. “He was a very organized guy and he showed up on time and did what was asked of him.”
When Michael trains new employees, he gives a motivational speech and mentions that he earned two college degrees while working at the store.
He doesn’t usually add that he was a high school dropout, but it’s not because he’s still ashamed of his past.
“If I ever had an office, I would hang my GED right up there,” Michael said. “Without that one, I wouldn’t have been able to get the other ones.”
Michael already has been accepted into the master’s program at Richmond and will start classes in January.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425