Before the fall semester started, Clinton Porter brought his daughters to Texas Tech University, driving around campus and pointing out buildings.
"This is Daddy's school," he told his 4- and 6-year-old girls.
They're too young to understand that Porter enrolled at Texas Tech as part of the largest class in the university's history because he was laid off from his job in the oilfields a year ago. He hasn't explained that although he learned skills and took courses during his six-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, which began when he graduated from high school, he needed more skills to get a better job that would support them.
The kindergartener does know she started school at the same time as her daddy.
"They're like, 'Daddy, you have homework?'" Porter said.
Thanks to credits earned during his time in the military and taking night classes sporadically during his nine years in the oilfields of West Texas, Porter entered Texas Tech as a junior, but this is his first experience with being a full-time student. His first week was overwhelming, he admitted, but he kept going. He thought of those two little faces who wanted to hear about his day at school and the example he wanted to provide for them as they got older and considered college.
He also thought about what he owes himself.
"I'm excited to learn," Porter said. "At this point my parents aren't making me go. I'm pretty self-motivated to come back to school. I want to learn."
A face in the crowd
Porter is one of 36,551 students who enrolled in Texas Tech, either as new or returning students. Enrollment has climbed each year since 2009, on track to reach the goal of 40,000 students by 2020 as set out in the university's strategic plan. He's doing what many of his fellow first-year college students are – taking 13 credit hours, easing into college life and checking out available majors to see what best suits his skills and goals.
He is not, however, the average first-year college student.
When Porter was a senior in high school, living in Naples, Florida, college wasn't on his radar. Neither of his parents went to college, and his mother didn't know about the deadlines for admission, financial aid and scholarships. She didn't know how to help him prepare for the ACT, write his essay or set up campus visits. Neither she nor Porter knew about a state program that would have allowed them to pre-pay four years of tuition at any public university in Florida.
When he graduated from high school, he joined the military. He spent three years in Anchorage, Alaska, and almost three years at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. His time in the Air Force, although it provided stability and job training, also added to a pre-existing battle Porter was fighting: hereditary alcoholism.
"I can't really pinpoint when I took my first drink, but I do remember the first time I drank and enjoyed the intoxication feeling," he said. "I was 7 years old."
During Porter's time at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, his frequent drinking turned into alcohol abuse, he said. After he left the Air Force, he found a job in the oilfields; the alcohol abuse continued. He also was on call 24/7 and working a physically demanding job, occasionally coming into contact with petroleum engineers from the big oil companies.
"I was working on a rig, working hard, and I saw these guys and they just seemed to have a better life than what I had," Porter said.
He applied to Texas Tech in 2009, intending to major in petroleum engineering, and was accepted. But he couldn't work in the oilfields and go to school, so he stayed in the fields. He moved around the region for work, got married and had two children, then divorced. As long as oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel, the constant, backbreaking work was worthwhile.
Then the price of oil dropped. In September 2015, when Porter was laid off, the World Bank reported a barrel of oil was selling for $46, less than half the selling price just a year before.
The drop in oil prices coincided with another milestone that readied Porter to go to school. In May of that year he realized his life, governed so much by his addiction, was unmanageable. He drove to a rehabilitation facility in Lubbock and got help.
"It changed my life," he said. "I've been in recovery since then."
With his full-time job gone and his recovery going well, Porter faced one more major obstacle: paying for college. The GI Bill, which pays for veterans to go to college, had expired, but he learned about the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which offered extended funding for military veterans. Suddenly, he had the time and the money to go to college full-time.
"Someone told me about that and I was like, 'OK, that's my avenue,'" he said. "That's my door that's open. I don't really have an excuse at this point. I wore out my excuses."
Fearing failure, seeking success
Technically, Porter is a junior, but he started college about as green as the 18-year-olds who make up the majority of new students. He picked up a few elective credits doing training in the Air Force, and he did several of the basic courses at Western Texas College while working in Snyder. But that was a small school with different expectations.
Porter spent his first few days on campus looking buildings up on Google Maps and following his phone to his next class. The student-teacher ratio is much higher than he's used to, meaning less individual attention. Even the Military and Veterans Program boot camp offered before the semester began, which outlines all the resources available to veterans on campus, was a lot to handle just because he got so much information in such a short time.
"So I get here, and ..." Porter paused, then laughed a little. "I don't know how to describe it other than overwhelming."
He does not want to fail. He got his first ethics homework assignment and wasn't entirely clear what was being asked, nor was he comfortable with the new ideas being presented. Worried, he emailed his professor and explained his fears of failing. So much is riding on his success, and he's afraid he won't be able to succeed.
"At 37 you're kind of set in your ways, so to speak. You have your biases you have your own morals, I guess, and when you're introduced to different ideas, that you may have to start thinking this way or this is a possibility – it makes me uncomfortable to learn to be open to that kind of stuff."
But now it's three weeks into the semester. If the phone is out between classes, it's not because Porter needs directions. He's settling into routines, getting comfortable with the unfamiliar words and ideas and accepting that part of his education includes dealing with uncomfortable ideas. He's listed as a university studies major but is looking into personal financial planning, nursing or construction engineering. He also found Student Disability Services, which provides resources to help him overcome the effects of attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Things are looking up.
It's still not easy.
"My brain is a little rusty right now, so I'm getting help with classes and studying," he said. "My stress level is still high. I go to school, then have to rush to pick up my daughters from school and then be at work by 5. I usually work until 10:30 p.m. With all that, I have to squeeze time in to study and do homework."
But he remains focused on the goal: graduating from college on his way to a better job and a better life for his family. Every time he pulls out a book or a pen, he thinks of two little girls who are doing their homework.
"When my girls graduate from high school, I want to be able to show them, hey, this is what your dad did," Porter said. "When I've got two little girls who rely on me, I just want to be a good example."