Life doesn't always go as planned.
When unforeseen challenges arise, it never hurts to have something to fall back on. Ben Sinclair, the 2016 North Platte Community College commencement speaker, learned that first-hand.
At age 40, he is enrolled at NPCC, studying to become a teacher. It wasn't a profession the Yulee, Fla. native had originally considered.
"I had no desire to go to college right out of high school," said Sinclair. "I was just burned out."
Instead, two weeks after his 1994 graduation, Sinclair headed to boot camp and prepared to become a Marine.
His future was changed in an instant during combat training. Sinclair sustained a severe ankle injury during a forced march, preventing him from being deployed and severely limiting his options in the military. He was honorably discharged in 1997.
With no backup plan in place, Sinclair returned to Florida. He took a job in the City of Fernandina Beach Wastewater Department at the request of his father, who was also employed by the city.
"It was a lot of heavy equipment work – manholes, storm drains and sewage treatment," said Sinclair. "I always wanted to have a job in the trades and work with my hands. Unfortunately, because of the injury, it's hard to stay on my feet for long periods of time."
He and his wife, Rebecca, moved to North Platte from Jacksonville, Fla. three years ago, partly because they had been told the Veterans Affairs system was better than in Florida and partly to be closer to family. They were also tired of the crowding and violence that accompanied big city life.
Ben was familiar with North Platte because he had visited it as a teenager. He remembered it as a small, friendly community that was rich in history – a passion of his.
"I see the same southern hospitality in North Platte that you find in places like Georgia," Ben said. "The cost of living is more affordable out here as well."
Through the Lincoln County Veterans' Service Office, Ben learned that he qualified for a Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. It allowed him to start taking classes at NPCC in the spring of 2015.
"The program retrains disabled veterans for new careers," Ben said. "I was given a test and found out I had an aptitude for teaching, so the VA will send me to school for four years to pursue that. It pays for books, tuition, fees – there's no financial burden whatsoever, and I get a small monthly stipend so that I don't have to work while I'm in school and can devote my time to studying."
He's also received tremendous support from his wife, who does medical coding and billing for the North Platte OB GYN.
"She works hard to make sure I can continue to further my education," said Ben. "She's the one who pushes me, sometimes harder than I push myself, and I don't think I would be able to do this without her."
He's on track to graduate in July, then has plans to transfer to York College where he will major in K-12 special education.
Until then, he's focused on continuing his success at NPCC. His numerous academic achievements at the college include being named to the President's List, winning a public speaking contest, receiving recognition at the 2016 Honors Convocation and receiving the Spirit Award last year for his enthusiasm and support of college activities, faculty, staff, fellow students and the overall mission of Mid-Plains Community College.
"I try to stay humble about that kind of stuff," Ben said. "More than the awards, I value the friendships of the people I've met here at the college."
Humble or not, his achievements make him a role model for traditional students at NPCC.
"It is kind of fun to show them that anything is possible," said Ben. "If an old fogy can come in here and be successful, then they can, too. My dad always told me that it doesn't matter if you're digging ditches or serving as president. You do the best job you can do."
There's no doubt in his mind that it was better for him to wait to go to college, however. He needed some time to gain maturity and focus on what was important to him.
"It would have been difficult for me to even exist in college when I was 18 or 19," Ben said. "I had to get out there in the real world and experience the value of hard work, learn resiliency and influence and be influenced by others. My life has prepared me for this challenge. There's something to be said for wisdom with age."
His circumstances have turned him into a strong advocate for continuing education – especially at community colleges. As a non-traditional student, he would have found it intimidating to walk into a four-year college or university – no matter how important it was for him to go back to school.
"Education plays a vital role in today's society, and I'm a prime example of that," said Ben. "I've always been a hands-on person, but when I couldn't be that person anymore, I had to find something else to fall back on."
Ben will speak during the NPCC commencement ceremony at 3 p.m. May 6 in the McDonald-Belton Gymnasium. His message will be one of encouragement.
"If I could leave the audience with one message, I would want it to be that it's OK to fail," said Ben. "You will fail, but it's kind of like boxing. It's not about how hard you can hit, but how many times you can get hit and keep moving forward. It's a fail forward philosophy."