Paul Grush reflects on his Notre Dame education, and the long road he took to get there
By AMANDA GRECO
It is a cold Monday morning. Your alarm clock screams to rouse you in time to make it to your 8 a.m. class. More than a foot of snow has come down to cover South Bend — and Notre Dame, with all her luxuries, is not yet immune to such displays of Mother Nature's midwestern might. As you hit the snooze button and snuggle down under the covers, you think "There's no way I'm walking across campus in this weather."
For MBA student Paul Grush, a simple walk across campus was never an option.
When the alarm clock rang for this student, husband and father of four, it was time to rise and shine, no matter how few hours he slept, no matter how hard it was snowing. Not only did Paul face the responsibilities of family life before his first class each day, but a two-hour commute lay between his home in the small town of Grabill, Ind. and the University.
Receiving a degree from Notre Dame has been a lifelong dream for Paul; this Sunday — after two grueling years of hard work and thousands of miles passed on the toll road — that dream will become a reality.
After 16 years as a software engineer for Logikos, a custom software engineering company, Paul decided in July of 1999 that he wanted more. The computer science degree he had received from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology did not provide him the business background to support the management or ownership positions he wanted to pursue. "I decided to go back to school to supplement my technical skills," Paul said.
One day during lunch with Kristal, his wife of nine years, he popped the question: "What do you think about me going to school?"
Kristal knew that school would be a large commitment for Paul to undertake, one that would require him spending long hours attending classes, studying and working on projects. She knew that his schooling would require her to support the family financially with her salary from her career as a software quality engineer at Raytheon. She also knew she would have to take a majority of the child rearing on herself. What she didn't know was that her husband would spend four hours every day in his car, racking up more than 1,100 miles a week.
Paul searched for a school fairly close to home, within what he deemed a "commutable distance." His main goal was to avoid uprooting the family and the home they had built throughout the past nine years. There were several options closer to home, but Notre Dame was his hope; the others served as back ups.
After his acceptance to Notre Dame, the enormity of Paul's educational endeavor struck him. Orientation consisted of what he and his wife affectionately refer to as "boot camp" — two weeks of driving the long haul, seven days a week. Each semester, Paul took anywhere from 15 to 17 credit hours, and in his first year, he had at least one 8 a.m. class each semester. Though the MBA program boasts no Friday classes, work groups and resources available only on campus forced Paul to spend a majority of his Fridays taking the trip back to the Bend. Saturdays found him immersed in Notre Dame football, and even some Sundays required his attendance at on-campus lectures.
Paul's devotion to his education was not limited to the approximately eight hours he averaged on campus each day. While driving, Paul would listen to audio books and digital audio versions of "The Wall Street Journal" and "The Economist." During finals, Paul would digitally record his notes and listen to them repeatedly while he drove.
Once at home, Paul continued to study and work. Though the width of his office door was all that separated him from his family, they often found that his work kept him isolated from them. "My family was basically on hold," Paul said, "I missed a lot of opportunities to be with them because of school." Paul lost the chance to participate in his children's school functions and had to pass up trick-or-treating two years in a row because of school obligations.
The children, now ranging in age from 2 to 8, wanted their father home. "He never had enough time to play with us or help with homework, he didn't get to eat supper with us," said Jennifer, the oldest. "He wasn't even happy and he was always doing homework," she added. Once football season was through, Paul was able to take the children to their Saturday morning swim lessons. But even while the kids swam "Dad was always reading and studying," Jennifer said.
One evening, as Paul tucked in his daughter Michelle, she asked if he was going to Notre Dame the following day. When he replied that yes, he would be going, she began to cry, telling her father that the kids no longer wanted him to go to school because it kept them from seeing him. "That was hard," Paul admitted, "But the kids were really good troopers."
Perhaps the strongest trooper in the family has been Paul's wife Kristal, who ran a household as would a single, working mom — all while supporting her husband and his quest for higher learning. Paul isn't shy in admitting that he couldn't have made it without Kristal. "She has been so supportive," Paul said. "I call her my `pioneer woman.'"
It seems the trials have only strengthened their relationship. "I knew it was going to be hard," Kristal said, "But I also knew it was for a finite period of time. You can endure anything if you know it is finite," she added. It was hardest at the beginning, Kristal said, when Megan was only eight months old. It didn't take long, though, before the morning routine of waking, dressing, feeding and delivering four children and the afternoon juggling of rides, meals, homework, bathing and activities became simple for Kristal and the children. Aside from the constant worry for Paul's safety on the road, Kristal found the work with the family and the sacrifices she made for her husband to be "worth it … it has been worth it."
Financially, the prospect of Paul going to Notre Dame was a bit harrowing. Not only were Kristal and Paul halving the family income and taking on the added expense of tuition, they were also paying for the cost of his travel. Paul traveled a total of 230 miles round trip four to seven times a week. This amounted to approximately $28 a day in gasoline, plus $4 for tolls round trip, on top of general maintenance for the vehicle. "All in all, I think I put on around 75,000 miles since I started school," Paul said. The way Kristal sees it, though, their life is status quo and ideal. "I am living the American dream," she said, "I have kids and we are in debt!"
Now that Paul is through with school, the family is returning to normal. Already the changes have begun. After his last final exam, Kristal already felt as though she "had the old Paul back," she said. "The morning after his last exam, he was a new man. It was a miracle."
Paul hopes now that with his new degree, he will be able to find the satisfying career he wants, either buying or starting a company that handles telecommunications or medical technology. While Kristal obviously holds no resentment for the extra work she contributed while her husband was in school, she is clearly ready for her own break. When Paul mentioned the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D., Kristal laughed and told him he could do that — with his next wife! For Kristal, she envisions a future that holds more time for her to spend with her children. "I have been working for 19 years," she said. "In a few years, I would like to quit and be more involved with my kids." As for the money and time Kristal contributed for her husband, her only request is that she "see a return on [her] investment."
Looking back over the last two years, the Grushes are able to breathe a deep sigh of relief and feel a great sense of accomplishment. "I never thought we wouldn't get through it," Kristal said, "Only sometimes, I just begged `God, please hurry up!'" In his two years of two hour commutes, Paul only once missed a day of classes — not because he didn't want to get out of bed or because of inclement weather, but because his brother was undergoing a serious surgery. Even then, Paul contemplated trying to make his evening class. "There were never any days where I didn't want to go," he said. "School was something that I wanted to do for my family." In retrospect, Paul sums up his commute to school as "amazingly simple." Soon he will have his degree — and all without a single speeding ticket.
All Scene Stories for Friday, May 18, 2001