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What did it take to turn a high school dropout into a software engineer?

Winny Britton left, plays with her father, Cory, right, as her mother, Karin, holds her brother, Alexander, after posing for photos at their home in Riverton on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Cory Britton, 37, will graduate with degree in computer engineering from Weber State University. It’s a significant accomplishment for someone who has worked construction since he was a teenager because he dropped out of high school.
Winny Britton left, plays with her father, Cory, right, as her mother, Karin, holds her brother, Alexander, after posing for photos at their home in Riverton on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Cory Britton, 42, will graduate with degree in computer engineering from Weber State University. It’s a significant accomplishment for someone who has worked construction after dropping out of high school more than 20 years ago.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Cory Britton had a destination in mind.

His wife, Karin, was pregnant with their first child and he wanted to graduate from college before their child’s fifth birthday.

“I wanted to be a role model,” he said. “I wanted to make something of myself.”

It was a tall order for someone who had dropped out of high school at the start of 11th grade year and spent the next 20 years years hanging drywall and later, working in apartment building maintenance.

He worried that as a 37-year-old nontraditional student that he wouldn’t fit in and that he wouldn’t be able to handle the rigor of college work.

But this week, he will join nearly 6,500 other Weber State University graduates when he is awarded his bachelor’s degree in computer science.

A rocky start for a new beginning

On his first day on the Weber State campus in 2016, Britton panicked and couldn’t bring himself to climb out of his pickup truck to register for classes.

“I was just like, ‘Am I really going to do this? I feel so dumb. I get to be that old person in class that people talk about or make fun of or whatever.’ I was so embarrassed,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

So he sat in the parking lot until the registration office closed and drove 50 miles home to Riverton. He told his wife that he had arrived at the university too late to register. The next morning, he confessed to what really happened.

“She’s just like, ‘If you don’t want to, that’s OK. But you can do it.’”

“I was like ‘OK, let me try again today,’” he said.

This time, Britton, then 37, mustered the courage to get out of his truck and walk to the registration office. It was Halloween and the counselors were dressed in costumes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys look fun.’ It really helped ease my fears,” he said.

Cory Britton poses in his cap and gown in his home in Riverton on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Britton, 37, will graduate with degree in computer engineering from Weber State University. It’s a significant accomplishment for someone who has worked construction since he was a teenager because he dropped out of high school.
Cory Britton poses in his cap and gown in his home in Riverton on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Britton, 42, will graduate with degree in computer science from Weber State University. It’s a significant accomplishment for someone who dropped out of high school at the start of 11th grade and spent more than a decade working construction.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Once his classes started, Britton’s worries about how he might fit in among younger students persisted. He walked with his head down and kept to himself. He sat in the front row of his classes, eyes forward so not to catch a glimpse of his classmates.

On the second week of class, he had to pass papers down the row and he saw a classmate who he later learned was a single mom also seeking to improve her family’s circumstances. They became friends and he learned he was far from alone in his struggle. According to the university’s website, 65% of WSU students are age 25 and older, all considered nontraditional students.

With the help of his wife, their families and his employers, Britton juggled studies, family life and work. To help get up to speed academically, he worked closely with tutors, advisers and professors.

Still, he battled nagging self-doubt. He’d tried college twice before, and “I just wasn’t into it. I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough. I was like, ‘I failed in high school, failed in junior high. I’ve been in construction, I’m not smart enough to do this.’”

But he was a hard worker and he applied that work ethic to his college studies.

“The thing is, if you put your head down, just focus on your studies and put the time into it, you can do anything. Like, I passed Calculus III. I never thought in a million years I’d be able to do Calculus III or algorithms and data structures. There is no way I thought that was possible but it is,” he said.

Britton didn’t just pass his classes, he excelled. This week he’ll graduate from Weber State University with a 3.82 GPA in computer science from the College of Engineering, Applied Science and Technology. Once he receives his grades from this term, he expects his final grade point average will be even higher.

Nicole Anderson, assistant professor of computer science, said Britton took her human computer interaction course his final semester, and when he shared his personal story, it inspired her and other students in the class.

“Computer science is a hard field and there are times when you’re going to feel frustrated when you’re writing code, when you have a problem that takes a long time to solve. Computers aren’t like people where if I say things, not in a perfect way, hopefully I can still get the idea across to you. But a computer is a little more unforgiving and that if you don’t get the syntax just right it doesn’t necessarily have that ability to do the translation,” she explained.

Hard work’s reward

Britton took a circuitous route to accomplishing his goals, but his story is a testament to what can be accomplished by working hard and staying the course. It’s a story that resonates with anyone struggling to complete school and to balance their studies with other demands in their lives, she said.

“They have so much on their plate, and everyone has a time when they’re really challenged. Just to hear ‘I kept persevering, I can do this. I’m going to make it to the finish line. It might not look exactly what I thought it was going look like every step of the way, but, you know, I can be really successful in the end’” meant a lot to them all, Anderson said.

Anderson is grateful that while Weber State is large enough to offer several tiers of support to students, it is small enough that faculty can make personal connections with students.

“One of the reasons I enjoy being a faculty here is that classes are relatively small. We really care about our students and want them to succeed. Students like Cory really remind us why we teach,” Anderson said.

Britton said his message for others is they can accomplish their personal goals if they put their minds to it and believe in themselves.

“The next four years are coming whether you like it or not. However, you can change what your profession will be four years from now. Please believe in yourself, chase your dreams, and earn a degree in a profession that you are going to be excited to wake up and be a part of for the rest of your life. Life is too short and too precious to do something that you are unhappy with day after day,” he said.

As Britton had hoped and worked toward, his eldest child Winny, who is not yet 5, will be at his graduation.

“Hopefully she remembers that. I think it’s important to have her there because it’s a big milestone and she knows what’s going on. I told her I don’t have to do homework all the time anymore. We can play on the weekends, so she’s so excited,” he said.

His graduation will also be reason for his wife to celebrate. The couple’s son, Alex, is almost 2, so Karin Britton was largely on her own with the kids and also working while her husband was in school.

“She’s like, ‘I can’t wait till you’re done so I don’t have to be a single mom anymore,” Britton said. “Our time is finally here.”

On May 3, Britton will begin a full-time software engineer position with Veracity Networks in Lindon, where he has worked as an intern since June 2019.

In many respects, it is the culmination of a dream hatched 30 years ago when his stepfather gave him a computer coding book that came with more than a dozen hard discs after Britton mentioned his interest in coding.

“I loaded them up and followed the book and made a kangaroo hop across the screen. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I wish I would have stuck with it back then, but you know, life doesn’t always go as planned.”