Clear-eyed, confident and optimistic, Braxton Waller is ready for whatever the future brings as he graduates from Minnesota State College Southeast this spring.
Having completed an Associate of Applied Science degree in Information technology support —with honors — he’s well prepared to find employment, continue his education, or embark on new adventures.
“Life is about the journey, not the destination. I don’t know yet about the future – I have a lot of journey still left,” he said philosophically.
But his outlook wasn’t always so bright. In fact, his first encounter with MSC Southeast was in an appeals meeting, where he had to convince the Student Affairs team that he was ready to succeed in college.
Southeast wasn’t Waller’s first attempt at going to college, or even his second. Previously he had enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and later UW-Stout.
Waller grew up in North Carolina, but his family moved to Red Wing when he was in high school. He attended Red Wing High School for his senior year. After he graduated, he moved back to North Carolina.
When his father was diagnosed with leukemia a few years later, Waller returned to Minnesota to be closer to his family. (His father is now in remission.) He started college at UW-Eau Claire, but it wasn’t a good fit and he dropped out.
Waller took off a couple of years, then went to UW-Stout. Again, he dropped out. Eventually he re-enrolled there, but events took a turn for the worse when his grandfather died suddenly. Then another death in the family caused more trauma.
Waller simply stopped going to class. Ultimately, he was academically dismissed from Stout.
“My life just fell apart and everything came crashing down,” he remembered. “It was a really dark period in my life.”
It was at about that time that he applied to MSC Southeast. Because of his academic record, he was required to meet with Melissa Carrington-Irwin and Holly Daley from Student Affairs before he would be allowed to enroll.
“Going into the meeting, I felt insecure, like they were going to judge me. They had to ask me a lot of questions about why I deserved a second chance,” Waller said. “But by the time I left the meeting, I felt like Holly and Melissa were really seeing me, meeting me halfway, pushing me. It felt like they would be with me to help me attain this goal.”
Being on a first name basis with faculty and staff who knew him by name meant everything to Waller. “This is my fourth time in school, so I can attest that these people have been really caring.”
A time of focus
When the pandemic hit a year ago, it was a stressful time for most students. Waller was working full time but lost his job. But he says that was the best thing that could have happened to him, because he really needed to focus on college 100%.
“I was in a difficult SQL class at that time. I keep running the code and getting an error. I finally had to ask for help and admit that I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” Waller recalled. “Mark Swanson, my teacher, gave me the correct answer and then dissected exactly what I was doing in detail.”
Waller added, “Mark has constantly gone above and beyond, like posting video of all his lectures so you can review them. I could email him at 11:53 pm with something that was due at midnight and get an answer right away.”
During his time at MSC Southeast, Waller said he was relearning how to be a functioning student and a functioning human being at the same time.
“I had to explore what it meant to be a student. I used to blame outside factors instead of taking responsibility,” he explained. “I struggled with school my whole life, but there was a shift when I started doing it for myself — not because someone else expected me to. Southeast has actually shifted my perspective.”
This spring, Waller was delighted to encounter Melissa Carrington-Irwin again when he stopped by Student Affairs to pick up his diploma cover, cap, and tassel. It felt like his story had come a full circle from that first meeting when he went before the appeals committee.
“It meant so much to be recognized by her all these years later and to know that the meeting when I started wasn’t just another meeting for her. She genuinely cared,” Waller said. “This school is genuine, and that’s how I feel about my entire experience at Southeast.”