As hundreds of St. Thomas seniors line up for the undergraduate commencement ceremony this weekend, a somewhat unexpected face will be walking among them. At age 57 – and on the same day as his youngest son Shane – Michael Gapinski will be awarded a bachelor's degree. Not only will it represent years of hard work in the classroom, but also the return of a sense of personal fulfillment he had lost years ago.
Gapinski became an undergraduate student for the first time in the 1970s. He studied electrical engineering for two years at the University of Minnesota, where he said he did not do very well. At the time, university officials asked him to switch majors. He decided instead to leave the program.
As he began to think about what to do next, he decided to focus on getting a job. "I needed a means to an end," said Gapinski, who had a neighbor who did well working in construction. While searching the want ads for construction apprenticeship positions, he found someone who needed help in the drywall business. "The guy only asked one question: 'How tall are you?'" At six-feet, three-and-a-half inches tall Gapinski had the job. "He needed someone who could reach the ceilings," he said. After starting his own business a few years later, Gapinski worked as a drywall subcontractor for 30 years. His business supported his family and helped ensure that his four children were able to attend college, three at St. Thomas and one at Augsburg College.
In addition to his drywall business, during the 1990s, Gapinski began to pursue a second career in the music industry. "Drywall was my trade. It helped me support my family and pay the bills, but doing music was a dream come true," he said. Having spent time as a songwriter and singer, he focused on working as a promoter when he met an artist he considered to be the "real deal."
"We clicked," said Gapinski of musician Doug Wayne, who he helped to eventually make it to Nashville with a record deal. While he was happy with his client's success, "That kind of left me in the lurch," he said. In losing an artist to promote, he had lost something he was passionate about. Replacing what he had found so fulfilling was something he considered impossible at the time.
Shortly after he was no longer promoting music, Gapinski began to notice he would have racing thoughts that would cause him to behave erratically. He was diagnosed with bipolar I, a mental illness that causes manic episodes for the people who are affected by it. His family worried. "Early in his bipolar diagnosis, he ran from it rather than dealing with it," said daughter and 2010 St. Thomas graduate Kendra Gapinski.
"I was manic all the time – all over the place, thoughts racing, doing crazy things," he said. He eventually acknowledged that he needed help to bring his racing thoughts under control and began seeing a psychiatrist. "It takes a while to find the right balance," he said of finding the best combination of medications. "It's like getting your two hands to fit together perfectly; it takes time."
According to WebMD, during a manic episode, a bipolar person experiences elevated moods that can manifest themselves as euphoria, or feeling "high." "People who are bipolar thrive on that manic feeling. They love the way that life just really cruises along," Gapinski said. "When you take medication, everything slows down, so it's like you're in slow motion all the time. Getting used to that is really hard."
In addition to pharmaceutical assistance, which Gapinski said is a "life saver," his psychiatrist recommended he find an activity he could focus his energies on that fulfilled him as much as working as a music promoter once did. He needed to rediscover his passion.
When his daughter Kendra was a St. Thomas student, she heard about the Parent on Campus program and thought it might be a good fit for her dad. "My dad has always had a dream of completing his college degree," she said. "But it had been put on the back burner so he could ensure that all four of us children had the opportunity to go to a college of our choosing."
The Parent on Campus program began in 1978. It allows parents of full-time undergraduate students to take up to two courses per semester tuition-free.
Gapinski signed up for accounting and intro to computers. "I was petrified," he said. "I was so afraid because I had done badly at the U of M." Unsure of how he would do, he audited his first courses. "I was not intending to graduate at first," he said. "I was just taking courses to enrich my life." He regrets now that he had not taken them for credit. "I would have gotten an A in both of them," he said. After his first semester, he began taking all his classes for credit.
To meet part of his core curriculum requirements, he took an introductory economics course. It was there that he began to hit his stride. "I absolutely loved the analysis. It was like me analyzing music all over again," he said. Economics would eventually become his major and that course's instructor, Dr. Jim Vincent, would become his adviser.
As a student, Gapinski left an impression on Vincent. "I also had Mike in a second class, econometrics – a branch of mathematical statistics that most econ majors dread," said Vincent, who also had Gapinski's daughter Kendra and son Shane as students. "Mike thrived in the course. He was the ultimate econ geek!"
In addition to economics, Gapinski found he was especially interested in art history. In particular, he enjoyed Dr. Elizabeth Kindall's Chinese painting class. "I loved that course," he said. "Seeing the art, going to the art institute and seeing it face to face was just wonderful."
"Mike's active engagement in class not only inspired his classmates, but also set a high standard for our class discussions. His love of learning for learning's sake encouraged us all," said Kindall. "I often found him chatting with students after class about various topics we had covered that day. He has encouraged many students here at UST."
His family began to notice a difference. "When my dad would come home from his classes, all he could talk about were the amazing students and professors he had met," said Kendra. "Every professor he told about his disorder never blinked an eye and did everything in their power to ensure that my dad succeeded."
While he had found fulfillment he had lost when his music industry career ended, the lifestyle of an undergraduate student in his 50s was not always easy. Even though he took only two classes per semester, the work was "pretty intense, sometimes up to 40 pages of reading every night for a single class – and you have to take notes and write papers," he said.
With the credits he was able to transfer, Gapinski needed about two and a half years of full-time coursework to complete his degree. Instead, it took him five. "My wife will tell you I did an awful lot of studying," he said of his wife, Sandy. He joked that now that he has completed his degree, he is paying her back by remodeling their home.
In addition to the challenging coursework, Gapinski sometimes found it difficult to relate to his classmates, most of whom were the same age or younger than his own children. "I was like a shadow in class. They didn't really ignore me, but they didn't pay much attention to me either," he said, noting that although he often had to make the first introduction, many students in his classes were willing to share contact information with him and offer help if he ever got stuck or had questions. "That was pretty cool, that they were willing to do that for someone who was older that they didn't know," he said.
Throughout his career as a student, as well as his journey living with bipolar disorder, Gapinski has found the people close to him to be extremely supportive. "He used to be reluctant to share his disorder with people," said Kendra. "But seeing how caring and passionate the people at St. Thomas were he was able to open up."
"Everybody wants to help," Gapinski said. "But the truth is it's a lonely path. My family and friends are supportive but no matter what they say, I have to be the one to make a name for myself, to find a place for myself."
According to Gapinski, living with his disorder is a daily challenge. "I'm up for the challenge," he said. "Hopefully there's someone out there that will put me to good use because I want to be useful. It's important to contribute to society, to be fulfilled."
For his time at St. Thomas, Gapinski is grateful for the support he has received along his academic path from his classmates, his instructors and the many staff members that helped him navigate the business of returning to school. "It's very obvious that there are great people here who truly want students to succeed," he said.
His experience as an undergraduate student the second time around was a success and a stark contrast from his first attempt. "At the U, my electrical engineering courses had a hundred people or more and were in huge auditoriums," he said. "Here I could go after class to ask the teacher a question and I wouldn't have to wait in line behind 20 people to get it answered."
And as for rediscovering his passion, "Being engaged in something so strongly is probably the best substitute for the manic feeling that is now gone because of my medication," he said. "I loved going to St. Thomas. It was a good outlet, a healthy outlet."