College wasn’t for Ryan McCall – or so he thought.
He’d grown up in suburban Raleigh, forever taking apart bicycles and radios just to see how they worked. Math and science came easy.
Yet, when he graduated from Raleigh’s Broughton High, the idea of college didn’t excite him. As the only child of two parents who thought he should go to college, he grudgingly applied to N.C. State and UNC Charlotte, two in-state schools with engineering programs.
So in 1991, McCall started his academic journey at UNCC. It ended Saturday afternoon when he received his electrical engineering degree during the last of three commencements over two days. In all, more than 3,750 seniors graduated and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson received an Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree for his philanthropy to the university and both Carolinas.
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Richardson teared up as he spoke about his mother and grandmother teaching to maintain good manners.
McCall’s route was likely more bumpy than most – his story instructive to those thinking about returning to school.
His first year in college ended miserably, mostly Ds and Fs that placed him on academic probation. The best thing about his freshman year was that he met a senior named Vanessa Infanzon. They had jobs in the student union and met there.
She thought he was funny. Once while talking to her mother on the phone, he made her giggle by pretending he was being kidnapped. Mother told daughter: “You should date that guy.”
But just as that school year ended, McCall’s mother died suddenly. He went home to be with his engineer father, Jerry, and ended up taking off a year and a half, building cabinets and remodeling houses while he took a few classes at N.C. State.
Meanwhile, Infanzon graduated and left to pursue a masters degree at the University of Maryland. They stayed in touch by email, a technology in its infancy.
She got her masters in 1994 and returned to Charlotte to work at Queens University of Charlotte. They began to date, and she enticed him to return to UNCC and give college another try.
This time, he made better grades, and enjoyed his time with professors. “But I still didn’t see the point. I always had a passion for learning, but my head and heart just wasn’t fully in it,” said McCall, now 42. “UNCC and I came to the conclusion that perhaps this wasn’t the best route.”
‘A sore spot’
By then, he’d started a remodeling company in Charlotte and his friendship with Infanzon had blossomed into a full-scaled romance.
They married in 1998, and bought and began restoring a dilapidated house in the North Davidson community. The day they signed loan papers, they ran into Scott Swimmer who owned a construction company. “We now had a mortgage, and he needed a job,” Infanzon said.
McCall began to build houses for Swimmer and at nights he and Vanessa worked on their home, knocking down walls and taking everything else back to the studs.
In 2004, son Ben was born with a condition called benign congenital hypotonia, where a child has little or no muscle tone. Ben, now 11, needed attention, so Infanzon reduced her hours at Queens and eventually resigned to take care of their sons – Logan, 9, arrived two years later and Sean, 7, two years after that.
McCall had more responsibilities and quitting college gnawed at him. “With a degree, I’d be able to do a lot more for my family,” he said.
Infanzon urged him to go back. “I always knew that it was a sore spot for him that he hadn’t finished,” she said.
College fun and relevant
He had to start over. His first two years at UNCC counted for little academically. Working full time, he began taking night classes at 37, focusing on the requirements for an engineering degree.
Two years later, he’d completed 10 courses, enough to make him a sophomore. He’d made all As. But he’d run out of night classes offered for his degree and had to decide if he should go to school full time.
“I chose to go all in,” he said. This time, college was fun and relevant.
“I was blown away about how much I enjoyed the curriculum,” McCall said. “I felt included in the learning environment and was very comfortable with my professors.”
He made good friends with students half his age.
Through the school, he got picked up by Duke Energy to work on the utility’s grid. His junior year, he’d work full time at Duke one semester, and then go to school full time the next semester.”
Even then, he worked at Duke part time to generate income for his family. He was a full-time student as a senior. His father and other relatives and friends helped with money.
He assisted with engineering professor Mehdi Miri’s research on electromagnetic radiation in unbalanced transmission lines.
Then, on Friday, he turned in his last paper and suddenly college was over – 24 years after it started the first time; five years after the second time.
Saturday, he wore cap and gown, roaming the campus with his three sons, Infanzon, his father Jerry and Jerry’s girlfriend.
“This has been quite a challenge for the whole family,” said McCall, who’ll resume working at Duke in June. “All the late nights studying, doing research and now all that’s removed.
“I can’t wait to get started on the next chapter.”
Other Charlotte-area commencements
Central Piedmont Community College – 4 p.m. Thursday, Bojangles Coliseum.
Charlotte School of Law – 1 p.m. May 16, NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Johnson C. Smith University – 8 a.m. May 17, Irwin Belk Stadium.
Davidson College – 10 a.m. May 17, front campus.
Johnson & Wales University – 10 a.m. May 23, Time Warner Cable Arena.