Off to college, 32 years after high school

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Steve Garlinger never considered himself the academic type.

“When I was in high school, I took a trade-prep course in carpentry,” he said. “I was into the practical part, but not the book part. I did just enough bookwork to pass my courses and get out of there.”

Now, after a stint in the Army, two jobs and three decades, he’s found out he was wrong about himself, much to his delight.

And it happened purely by chance.

Garlinger, who now works for Penn’s Transportation and Parking Department, is also the second vice commander of AMVETS Post 77 in Olney. As such, he is always on the lookout for services that might be helpful for his fellow veterans. And it was while he was on the lookout that he “stumbled” upon Penn’s Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program.

“I saw the banner hanging across 37th and Walnut,” he said, “and I went in and spoke with Annette [Hampton, the associate director of the program]. One thing led to another, and next thing I knew, I was taking the exam” to enter the program.

It had been more than 30 years since Garlinger saw the inside of a classroom. The son of a carpenter, Garlinger had counted on a career working with his hands as his father did. But first, he volunteered for Army service shortly after graduating from high school in 1968.

His four-year tour of duty took him to Korea, Japan and Vietnam — briefly. He was pulled out of Vietnam when Army superiors found out that his brother, who also enlisted right out of high school, was already stationed there in a more important post.

After his discharge, he found work in a metal fabricating plant near his home, where he figured he was set for life. “I did well, and they paid well,” he said. “I
didn’t see the need for higher education.”

Then, after 22 years, he found himself out of work when the company moved to Baltimore. That’s when he came to Penn, where he maintains parking lot surfaces.

And now, six years after arriving at Penn, he’s ready to go to college at last, thanks to VUB. The program provides pre-college-level instruction in six basic subjects over a 12-week period, along with counseling and support to help ease veterans into academic life.
“Once I got in,” he said, “I found things that piqued my mind, things that I began to recall from way back in high school,” he said. “And as I proceeded further, I felt an obligation to succeed in the program.”

And having succeeded, he’s ready for the next step. With a little encouragement from a fellow custodian, he was accepted to the College of General Studies’ Stretch Program to pursue a degree in the social sciences, mainly for the fun of it.

“I figure it will take me eight to 10 years to finish my degree, and I’m 50, so I don’t see myself going into a new career,” he said. “But I think I can [apply] what I’ve learned in my civic work and my work with veterans’ groups.”

Garlinger also intends to keep spreading the word about VUB to his fellow veterans.
The VUB program is open to any veteran who comes from a low-income background or whose parents did not attend college. For more information, call 215-898-6855 or 6892.


Originally published on October 12, 2000