Unfinished business: Non-traditional student Michael Gordon returns to university

After a four decade gap, former journalist Michael Gordon seeks to complete the degree he started when he was a teen. ORACLE PHOTO/MARGO CHIPMAN

USF post-traditional student Michael Gordon couldn’t believe his luck. It was his sophomore year at the University of Maine and he’d found his way into a fiction writing class taught by author Stephen King.

But just four weeks later, he dropped the class and the rest of his schedule.

“I wanted to be a writer, a real fiction writer,” he said. “I begged to get into that class. I lasted four weeks and dropped out. It felt too imposing, trying to turn something into Stephen King. I guess that shows the kind of student I was.”

Like most students of the ‘70s, Gordon found himself wanting to make a difference in the world more than get a degree.

He had no motivation when it came to school, and was anxious about the lack of financial security that came with being a novelist. After just a year and a half of classes, he found himself less in the classroom and more at the office of the campus newspaper.

“I entered the journalism program, but I wasn’t much of a student,” he said. “I was lazy, I was a ‘70s kid. I just hung around the newspaper offices and messed around.”

So when an opportunity came to work for the Bangor Daily News, his hometown’s local newspaper, Gordon jumped at the chance.

“I knew it was tough to do fiction writing and support yourself. I thought the newspaper would pay me alright,” he said. “So I started doing some freelance pieces for [Bangor Daily News]. Then they said they were going to have a part time job opening, and they hired me.”

The commute from Bangor to the university campus was an hour drive, leaving Gordon with the choice to either stay and be a student, or dropout and pour everything into reporting. He chose the latter. From there, he spent the next 25 years traveling across the eastern seaboard as a journalist and editor for various publications.

Though not a career he imagined for himself, Gordon said it took him places he never dreamt someone from his upbringing could go.

“I’ve met some of the most powerful people in the world,” he said. “I’ve interviewed George H.W. Bush, Casper Weinberger and James Brown. I’ve interviewed Nobel prize winners. I don’t say that for self aggrandizement, I say it humbly. When I think back at the opportunities I’ve had, I’m astounded.”

Gordon came to Florida in 2000 to work with the Lakeland Ledger, which was then owned by The New York Times. He stayed in the area doing marketing work until 2021 before making the decision to retire.

The idea of finishing his degree comes from not only a personal desire, but as an opportunity to make his family proud, especially his daughter and granddaughter, according to Gordon.

“I started something in 1976 that I should’ve finished, and that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want my obituary, my resume or any novel I publish to say that I am a graduate of the University of Maine through USF.”

Gordon re-enrolled at the University of Maine in 2015 with the intent to take classes only online. However, he quickly exhausted all of the available English classes. With the help of his guidance counselor, Gordon can take classes in person at USF and transfer the credits to help further his degree. Now at USF, he’s come with the intent of finally finishing a degree 46 years in the making.

Gordon is currently enrolled in two classes, a Shakespeare course with professor Lisa Stark, and a Fiction I writing course with professor Mark Leib. For Leib, it’s not everyday a student is his age. But he says Gordon is able to bring a knowledgeable presence to the classroom, as well as a strong understanding of how to utilize the English language.

“He’s a sophisticated writer,” Leib said. “He has more command of the English prose than most writer’s I meet in Fiction I. He’s also extremely generous to the other writers, things I’m not so crazy about he actually enjoys. It’s nice to have someone in class who knows how to wield an English sentence.”

Grace Vlaming, junior English major, sits alongside Gordon in Leib’s course. She said that having someone with real world experience makes for an invaluable contribution.

“A lot of students don’t feel comfortable giving their full thoughts on stories, but he’s such an open book,” she said. “He gives strong feedback and asks good questions because he knows how to be a writer.”

Though excited to be back in person, Gordon found that rejoining the classroom four decades later had its challenges.

“One of the biggest differences, naturally, is in technology,” he said. “When I was a freshman, if you wanted to do research for a class you had to go to the campus library and use these things called ‘books.’ Eventually, the internet opened up learning at our fingertips, and it continues to grow.

“Of course, you have to be more careful about what information you use today, because anyone can
post online. But what an amazing tool for learning about anything.”

While the jump from page to screen can be a learning curve, Gordon said his biggest culture shock was the intelligence of his fellow classmates.

“I have friends with grandkids the age of my classmates,” he said. “It’s eye opening how young these people are, and I’m astounded at how many credits they take. Not only that, but they’re excelling at amazing levels. That’s the biggest difference for me, is seeing how dedicated these kids are.”

Though his degree may say University of Maine on it, Gordon said he’s grateful for the opportunity to work with USF as this lifelong project comes to a close.

“If I didn’t have access to USF, I could not complete my degree,” he said. “The caliber of learning that I’m getting from my professors, and the astonishing maturity and perspective of the young people here are memories I will take with me.”