Better Than Before: non-traditional student shares 49-year college experience

Dick Lewis, a Texas Tech alumnus, speaks to students in the Horn/Knapp Residence Complex Lounge on March 31.  Lewis talked about his experience with college and how he graduated 49 years after he first started at Tech in 1963.

When Dick Lewis left his off-campus apartment every morning before school, he would see the sign that he made himself: “Today, apply yourself 100 percent.” Like athletes going out of a locker room before a game, this sign helped Lewis prepare for the day to come.

Lewis graduated from Texas Tech in 2012 with a degree in political science. But, after starting his undergraduate journey in 1963, the degree was almost 50 years in the making.

Being 550 miles away from his home in Houston in 1963, Lewis said at Tech, he had the chance to be on his own and live his life.

Lewis said he chose a political science track after interacting with a friend of his who worked for the city of Houston.

“(My friend) was kind enough to arrange an appointment for me with the mayor of Houston at the time, and we talked about public service,” Lewis said. “It really fascinated me working for governments and what you could do. So, I thought political science would be an arena where I could best fit my interest.”

This friend, who was the director of traffic and transportation for the city of Houston, was a role model for Lewis. Because of his friend’s occupation, Lewis was inspired to go into a career that involved public service. Lewis said he wanted to pursue a career that benefitted others.

But, during his first stint at Tech, Lewis said diversions other than academics got the best of him. Alcohol and women were some of those distractions.

These diversions eventually led to his academic probation. After multiple instances of probation, Lewis said he eventually decided to drop out of Tech.

When Lewis decided to marry the woman he was dating at the time, Lewis said that was when he decided his time at Tech was an abysmal failure and it was time to begin his career.

“It reinforced that I had been having a good time but wasn’t paying attention to the matters at hand, and that being academics,” Lewis said. “I don’t think I was mentally prepared for college. I think that I was still developing as an individual, and that was part of the growth process.”

Lewis started his career at the South Plains Association of Governments. This was a regional planning and coordination agency that worked with cities and school districts throughout the 15 counties in the South Plains. Lewis said he had to convince his boss at the time that he would be able to do the work even without an undergraduate degree.

“It was one where I was able to convince them that with my hard work and dedication about wanting to have the job, that it allowed me to convince them that I could do the work,” Lewis said. “They took a gamble on me, and one thing led to another, and then I became the deputy executive director of the agency and worked for them for five years.”

In this position, Lewis said he coordinated with the federal and state governments to obtain grant funds for cities and counties that needed them. Lewis then progressed to Austin for a position in the governor’s office.

In the governor’s office, Lewis said he started with reviewing the effectiveness and efficiency of different state agencies. There was one thing that Lewis took from his time at Tech in his job with the governor’s office.

“I remember that I had another task where I was representing the governor at the water-quality planning meeting for the state of Texas,” Lewis said. “We were to come up with a series of committees to help us to do that. I had done all the necessary research on the type of entities that we needed to get representation from on those committees. But, I left out one major element. When I presented the list of who I was recommending to the governor who should be appointed to the committees, the governor asked if these people were Democrats or Republicans. That became a realization as to how politics has its role in government.”

Lewis also related his work with the water-quality planning effort to his time in Lubbock. As Lewis was learning how important water resources are in the state of Texas, he said he remembered how pivotal water was for farmers and their cotton in the South Plains.

As Lewis continued his career, he worked for different places like the Texas Department of Water Resources and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. When Lewis came back to work with the Commission of Environmental Quality for the state of Texas, he said he knew it was almost time for him to retire. This thought of retirement renewed the idea of going back to college and finishing his degree.

“One of the things that struck me was that I could do one of two things,” Lewis said, “that I could either go fishing for retirement or I could go back to school and finish up my degree. I chose the latter.”

While Lewis looked at finishing his degree at the University of Texas near his home in Austin, the transfer of hours there would have been difficult. Lewis said he then chose to come back to Tech in 2011 to finish his degree after realizing that he would be able to complete the degree in a year.

There was one problem that Lewis said he would have had to overcome if he chose to complete his degree.

“Due to the previous probations I had been on when I left Tech, I had a GPA of 1.3,” Lewis said. “The only way that I was able to graduate if I had taken the (hours I had left) was by making straight A’s.”

To receive straight A’s, Lewis said he had to apply himself the way he did in his professional career. Lewis prepared every day and kept track of all of his reading assignments and lab work.

When Lewis came back, the other students he interacted with were accommodating.

“(The other students) thought it was cool that I was coming back and that it was awesome to be getting a degree at my age,” Lewis said. “In class, they recognized that I was there much like I was doing business, that I was very attentive and would participate in class. They eventually took me in and wanted to have study sessions with me since I was the better student.”

Lewis said he spent most of his time studying after he came back to Tech. Lewis did not have the same distractions that he had back in 1963, when he attended Tech. Lewis was married, so he did not have to worry about dates or going to parties.

But, while Lewis focused on academics, he said he also participated in extracurricular activities and frequently attended Tech athletic events.

“When I went to the first football game, I went in the student entrance, and the attendant said ‘I’m sorry, this entrance is for students,’” Lewis said. “I pulled out my ID and said, ‘You mean one like this?’”

Aliza Wong, associate dean of the Honors College and associate professor of history, said she met Lewis after hearing from different faculty members how seriously he took his academics. After Wong found out that Lewis had won the best undergraduate research writing award for the school year, she discovered his story and what it took for him to come back to Tech.

“I was very impressed and touched by his story,” Wong said. “I was inspired by his dedication to education and for fulfilling all of his goals.”

When Lewis graduated in 2012, it was a special day for him. Lewis got the chance to be the banner bearer for the College of Arts & Sciences during the commencement ceremony in front of his family. When Lewis explained to his granddaughter what the banner bearer was, he said she was proud of him.

“When I explained to my granddaughter that I was going to be the banner bearer, I told her that I will lead in the students from the College of Arts & Sciences into the commencement arena,” Lewis said. “To a 5-year-old, she had to process that for a moment or two, and then she said ‘That means Po-Po will be a line leader.’ In her vernacular, the line leader was quite the job.”

The one aspect of the commencement ceremony that meant a lot to Lewis was the opportunity to receive his diploma from Lawrence Schovanec, then-interim president of Tech. Lewis said he and Schovanec had developed a relationship when Lewis started back at Tech in 2011.

“One of the things that (Schovanec) had told me was ‘Dick, I know that you are going to have some ups and downs coming back to school. Don’t give up, and I’m sure that I will be able to shake your hand at graduation,’” Lewis said. “As it turned out, he sure enough did. It made it much more special to have that moment with him as I received my degree.”

Schovanec said he first met Lewis when he was interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. After Lewis reached out to Schovanec, they became good friends.

“It was so neat after we had gone through this experience together, to be able to shake his hand (at graduation),” Schovanec said. “He has a real interest in helping Tech, communicating with students, bringing his experiences to bear upon advice he might give them.”

One of the reasons why Wong said she thinks Lewis’ story is so important is because it showcases a non-traditional path to receive an undergraduate degree.

“(Lewis) came to college and, as he described to the Honors College students, he had a wonderful time at Texas Tech,” Wong said. “He found numerous diversions and unfortunately, his classes were not one of those diversions that caught his attention most at that time. But, the college experience was important, and he really enjoyed that. Even though he wasn’t academically successful, it did not define his contribution to the state of Texas, and it did not limit the possibility of what he could do to change the situation of citizens in the state and in the nation. He still found ways to contribute and give back.”

Wong said Lewis is the prime example that students are not defined by their GPAs alone. Students should invest in their education, and not worry solely about the grades.

Lewis coming back to Tech after a significant amount of time shows how he had faith in the educational system and faith in a liberal arts education, Wong said. 

“If (Lewis) hadn’t come back to Texas Tech and he hadn’t gotten his college degree, would it lessen what he contributed to the state of Texas?” Wong said. “He spent 36 years in service to the state without a college degree. After everything he did with energy and with water and with the prison system, after all those accomplishments … he still had intellectual curiosity. He still had questions he wanted to ask, and he had questions he wanted to propose. That is what is so inspiring about it, that we continue to define and redefine ourselves, and that’s his story. Yes, he came to Texas Tech, and he left with a 1.3 GPA. Yes, he had an amazing career. But, yes, he thinks he has more to give and more to learn.”

Wong said Lewis’ story inspired her, as well.

“I hope that when I grow up that I can be like Dick Lewis,” Wong said.

(2) comments

LeeCWoodward

I really like to read about Louis and his life history. It is good to write about these professionals who did the great wok in their life. Also, I read many professional resume writing service reviews about these views to motivate the students in their education.

Nha Thanh Lam

What a wonderful story. I love that he decided to go back to school instead of retiring. And the story about using the student entrance at the football game warmed my heart. I hope he is able to enjoy his retirement to the fullest. Congratulations, Mr. Lewis!!!

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