Ian Middleton’s journey to graduation had more than few turns, and at least one very bumpy road.
Ian Middleton is a lot of things.
He's funny and engaging. He's interesting, his stories light-hearted and well told even when he's dealing with heavy subjects. He's a musician, a photographer, an artist, a videographer, a bar back, a student and an outdoorsman.
One day he may add rock star, entrepreneur or any number of other things to that list. The possibilities are endless.
In just a few weeks he'll get to add college graduate to the list of things he certainly is. It wasn't always easy, and the road to graduation took more than a few turns, but for Middleton, the journey helped define the destination.
Spaces like this one are often used to highlight academically exceptional students, those who came to Texas Tech University with a defined plan, executed that plan to perfection, earned their way to the very top of the academic food chain and are now expected to go out and save the world.
Ian may not be that, but he's exceptional in his own right.
“He's one of those guys at first glance, you wouldn't give him a whole lot of notice amongst the crowd of students,” said Jerod Foster, an associate professor of practice in Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication and one of Middleton's mentors. “You might see the fact that he's got long hair and be kind of curious about that, but once you start digging in on Ian, you understand, the guy's passionate about things.”
Passionate about things is another descriptor to add to the list. Maybe the most important one. It was, in fact, that passion which eventually pushed Middleton down an academic path he didn't even know existed.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
As a high school student in Stephenville, Texas, Middleton was in many ways an ideal pupil. The son of a local pastor, he was an athlete and involved in other school-sponsored extra-curricular activities, was active in church activities and graduated in the top 15 of his class.
He planned, at the time, to come to Texas Tech and study architecture. It seemed like a stable future and one he would have interest in. But Middleton wasn't convinced enough. He had two older sisters, and both had come to Lubbock for college at Lubbock Christian University (LCU), where they each were finding success.
At the last minute, Ian decided to follow their path rather than blazing his own trail, and LCU offered a music business major he thought he would be interested in.
In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. LCU wasn't the right fit for Middleton, and following in the footsteps of his sisters, who set a high bar, wasn't easy for him on a small campus.
“I hated every bit of it,” he admits now with a bit of a laugh. “It just wasn't my thing. It felt like a continuation of high school.”
For three semesters he chugged along, making decent grades but never really finding his niche. He was unhappy, and it was easy to see.
“When he came to college, I wanted him to be somewhere where he would be well taken care of,” his sister, Emily Garza, said. “It was obvious things weren't going well. From my perspective, I just wanted him to be happy and find his place.”
A conversation with some friends who had already made the move from LCU to Texas Tech shined light on what he thought would be a path to a happier college career.
“They were like, ‘Dude, come to Texas Tech. You'll have better experiences on a campus this size,'” Middleton explained. “So, I ended up doing that, and now I've been at Texas Tech for about four years.”
The transition from LCU to Texas Tech wasn't particularly smooth.
In the year and a half or so between high school and transferring to Texas Tech, Middleton changed his mind about his college education. He was pinpointing an accounting degree, rather than architecture or music business, even though his love for music never wavered.
He found out relatively quickly that accounting might not be the best option for him either. And, aside from the academic struggles, Middleton (like many other students in this graduating class) was trying to navigate the new landscape of attending during a global pandemic.
“I don't take online classes because I just don't learn that way,” he said matter-of-factly. “If I don't have to get up out of bed and go to class physically, I'm probably not going to go. Like half the time, I just wouldn't go.”
What Middleton terms a “rough semester” of failing grades was followed by a semester he decided to take off during the pandemic. Another turn in the road awaited when came back, and this time the road he chose led to a better place.
“I got a university adviser,” he said, “and I was like, ‘I don't want to be an accountant. What I want is to be a rock star. I want to play music. That's my thing.'”
Finding His Route
The suggestion from his adviser was to look into Creative Media Industries (CMI).
“They were like, ‘You can do your own promotional stuff,'” Middleton explained. “They said, ‘You'll learn a valuable skill; it might be more up your alley.'
“I'm making it sound like I'm a terrible student, but I did get my stuff together really well when I made the switch to CMI.”
Part of the College of Media & Communication, CMI is designed to “prepare students for survival in the new converged media environment,” according to its website. The hook for CMI is blending courses in broadcasting, photography, videography and post-production with some real-world experiences.
“I've never even held a camera,” Middleton remembers thinking at the time. But the seed was planted.
“When you come across somebody like Ian, who has a lightbulb moment, the lightbulb turns on sometime in college, as it should,” Foster said. “That's a big deal. That's a huge deal.”
That moment for Middleton was a class taught by Foster.
“I took Foster's portfolio class and we had to have a portfolio done by the end of the semester,” Middleton explained. “I was like, ‘Dude, I haven't ever shot anything before. How am I supposed to have a portfolio?' And he's like, ‘It's time to start learning.'”
So, he learned. He learned how to use a camera, how to produce high-quality photos and how to build a professional working portfolio. Better still, he did it all in an environment he was comfortable with.
“I started shooting concerts and found out I really liked it a lot,” he said. “It's given me chances to still be involved in the music scene as I was finishing up school. I haven't had as much time to play with my band because it's not practical. We don't have enough time to practice and book gigs and still play and me pass my classes.
“It's been nice having the photography stuff because I can still be involved and going to concerts, meeting new artists and stuff like that.”
Like most students, aside from the work of classes Middleton has bills to pay as well. He has spent most of his time in college working at bars and restaurants around Lubbock. Late last year he hired at the Blue Light, the famous local watering hole and arguably the heart of the Lubbock music scene.
Before his band had to take a step back to focus on graduation they played at the Blue Light and from time to time you can still catch him on an acoustic night. But he's also used the space as a place to help build his photography portfolio.
“I've made so many friends up at the Blue Light on a random night,” he said. “Whoever's playing, I just go up and ask them, ‘Hey is it OK if I photograph this and share your stuff?' And then sometimes we make personal connections just off that alone.
“It opens up a lot of doors. Whether the touring works out or not, it's always going to be there because of CMI. I'm always going to have that connection to the live music scene.”
Changing fields isn't easy, of course. It takes a lot of work to pick up a new skill, and learning photography was no different.
What was different for Middleton was the drive to get it done.
“I've seen tons more motivation in Ian,” Garza said. “I don't know how he balances his schedule. He's up late working all the time and still making it to 8 a.m. classes. But he's found things that bring him joy and give him passion through his degree program.
“I think if he hadn't found something he cared about, he would have kept floundering.”
With his academic career back on track and a busy work schedule, Middleton would have been forgiven for hunkering down, taking just the required classes left to earn his degree and finishing out his final year of college in the easiest manner possible.
It's what the average student would have done; the path many would have chosen. He learned photography and some post-production skills and had the portfolio and talent to develop a career after college. With a degree in hand, he would have what he needed to go out into the world.
But that's the thing about Ian Middleton – the road most people would have taken doesn't interest him. So, he went a different route.
He joined another of Foster's classes, one called Adventure Media, a grueling physical challenge of bike-packing – taking long bike rides with full packs – through remote areas while learning how to use the natural world as a setting for media production.
“Foster would come and pitch this class in other classes, and I had this weird conviction where I really felt like if I didn't do it, I was going to feel like I missed out on an opportunity,” Middleton said.
He went to Foster and asked if the professor thought he would be able to hack it physically. After a few assurances, he applied for the class and was accepted.
“I came into that class out of shape in every way, and seven miles into the first ride I was like ‘OK, I can't do this,'” Middleton said. “But I knew if I gave up on it, I would feel even worse, I wouldn't be able to look back on it and be happy with myself.
“So, I just kept grinding, started going to the gym more and got myself in really good physical shape. And there was this team mentality in the class, this feeling like we're all in it together, and that camaraderie is something I hadn't felt in a long time.”
There was a sense of pride in the accomplishment of taking on a challenge to close out his career, and it showed through all the way to his family.
“There was a trip they went on – that first trip when he thought he wasn't going to make it but biked like 30 miles – and when they got back, they all collaborated on a video,” Garza explained. “Ian sent me and our sister that video, and I'm pretty sure that's the only time he's ever sent us something he did for school. You could just tell he was so proud and like ‘Look what I did!' It was really cool.”
An injury kept Middleton from completing the final ride of the year, a massive undertaking through harsh conditions in New Mexico, but even then he found a way to make it work.
“Students were recruited into this class, which essentially meant they were hired to do this job that the class provides,” Foster said. “If you can't do the whole job, especially for circumstances that you can't help, it's not like you're not an employee anymore. It's just your role may change, right?
“That's, that's also kind of a nice life lesson, being able to be that flexible.”
Foster explained that he was proud of how Middleton responded to the disappointment of not getting to make the final trip, or “climb that mountain” as he called it.
But the letdown of missing out was just another turn in the road, another challenge to overcome, and the class proved to be a valuable piece of his education.
“From a media production standpoint, I had never really gotten out in nature and shot stuff,” Middleton said. “I've always just done either concerts or portraits for my friends or something along those lines. It was a whole different world of photography that I'd never approached.
“And same thing with videography. I hadn't done much videography at all prior to adventure media. So, it's cool getting to expand those horizons.”
Music? Photography? Videography? What's over the next horizon is anybody's guess. Even Middleton isn't sure.
“It's been a back-to-reality kind of thing, starting to look at what I'm going to do after school,” he said. “Because my whole life has been school and now I don't have that anymore.”
That may sound frightening to some. It's supposed to be. Big life decisions don't come easily, and the transition from college into the workforce is often less than fun.
But if you know Middleton, you feel confident that if he can find something he's passionate about, the sky is the limit.
“He's got the whole music side that is fairly uncommon and being a former touring musician myself I relate to him on those levels,” Foster, who spent years touring with a band called the Hogg Mollies, explained. “I know how uncommon that is.
“And so, here's this seemingly normal, college-aged guy who's in between different, large phases of his life, right? But you start peeling back the onion a little bit, you learn there's some substance there, and I'm excited to see where it takes him.”