The Herald-Times

Old school, meet new school
After his workplace shuts down, longtime blue-collar worker goes back to the classroom

By April Toler 331-4353 |
May 2, 2012

Growing up in Bloomington, Kevin Wagner has never been afraid of hard work. Whether it was mowing lawns or working in food prep at a local restaurant, Wagner, now 42, learned early the value of earning one’s pay.

“Mom and Dad raised me to be a hard worker, so from the time I was 16 until now I’ve been pretty much working,” he said.

Although he always took work seriously, Wagner didn’t value his education in the same way and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.

HOUSING, UNEMPLOYMENT DATA: Chart average home sales in Monroe County and unemployment rates by any county in the country and more on our special recession project page

A turning point

At the age of 18, while working at a local restaurant, Wagner got word that Sims Poultry Inc. — a longtime Bloomington poultry processing plant — was hiring.

He decided to give it a shot.

“I walked in with holes in my blue jeans and I looked all scraggly with long hair, and (the boss) looked at me, and he said ‘I’ll give you one chance,’” Wagner recalled. “And I worked there almost 23 years. It was a good time. It was a good part of my life.”

But on Nov. 26, 2010, that “good time” came to an end when the owners of Sims decided it was time to close shop.

“It was heartbreaking to hear it come out of his mouth,” Wagner said of hearing the news. “I thought I’d be working for him for my whole life.”

Scared, Wagner wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Although he had talked about going back to school, Wagner wasn’t sure sitting at a desk all day was right for him.

His wife, Nancy Wagner, however, was confident he could do it.

“We had talked about going to school before, night classes, but he never really did it,” she said. “I said, ‘This is God’s way of telling you that you need to go back to school. You can either go back into the workforce or go back to school and get an education to better yourself.’”

Back to school

As his wife encouraged him to go back to school, Wagner decided to take a leap of faith and see whether he could first earn his GED.

“My wife told me, she said, ‘Why don’t you go take your GED test and see how you do,’ and I did and I passed,” Wagner said. “Which, I was surprised I passed it. I hadn’t been in school in 20 years. I was pretty impressed with myself.”

After receiving his GED and talking to his sister, Kim Bloodgood, who works at Ivy Tech, Wagner began to allow himself to see the idea of college as a real possibility.

A little more than a month after he walked out of Sims Poultry for the last time, Wagner walked onto a college campus for the first time.

“It was different,” Wagner said. “It was not what I was used to. I was used to what I consider regular labor and what other people would consider hard labor,” he said. College is “using your brain instead of brawn,” he said.

Not only has he completed more than a year of college, Wagner, who always had an interest in computers, is majoring in both computer information technology and computer information systems.

After earning his degree, Wagner hopes to find a job working on databases in the area and to work as an independent contractor building security systems.

Older student

With financial aid, unemployment benefits and Nancy Wagner’s paycheck, the couple has been able to push through the past couple of years.

But Wagner admits he’s ready to finish school and start earning a paycheck.

“I take six classes each semester, and this summer I’m doing three classes,” he said. “With the double curriculum, I’ve been pushing it, because we’re running out of the funds to keep going.”

Although sitting at a desk beside people who went to school with his children is a change, he said he feels comfortable being a college student.

While Wagner’s future may be looking brighter, it’s been challenging, he said, adjusting to his new life.

There are also the worries that most people have — mortgages, car payments, raising children — that at times weigh on his mind.

“The day-to-day life is not nearly as scary as, ‘What am I going to do next week?’” Wagner said. “What am I going to do if I flunk a class? What am I going to do if the money runs out or if this happens or that happens? It’s scary . But I try not to think about it.”

Itching to start fresh

While Nancy Wagner knows all too well her husband’s eagerness to work — he rearranged the entire house his first week out of a job — she believes all his hard work and determination will pay off.

“After getting an education, it won’t be so physical anymore. He can start using his mental ability instead of his physical ability,” she said. “I think it will be for the better.”

As for Wagner, he’s glad he took the leap of heading back to school later in life.

But as is his nature, he’s really itching to get back to work.

“I know I have to finish,” Wagner said. “It’s that anticipation. I’m ready to get out there and use what I’ve learned.”

Enrollment grows

Ivy Tech enrollment of both traditional and nontraditional students has grown dramatically since 2006, when 3,250 traditional and 2,898 nontraditional students were enrolled.

In 2011, those numbers had increased to 5,403 traditional and 3,742 non-traditional students enrolled. That’s an almost 64 percent increase in traditional student enrollment and a 29 percent increase in nontraditional (25 or older) student enrollment.
Kevin Wagner is going back to school at Ivy Tech Community College after being laid off from Bloomington’s Sims Poultry, where he had worked for almost 23 years. View a free audio slideshow about Wagner and Ivy Tech at Chris Howell | Herald-Times
Stewart Moon | Herald-Times

Copyright: 2012

About Ivy Tech Community College

Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.