Gap Years

Lessons learned from going back to school, four decades later.

illustration of a man in cap and gown leaping from one stone to another and shedding the tools and clothing of an electrician, by Marcos Chin

My story is a good example of how hard it is to escape the effects of a good liberal arts education. I finished a master’s degree in anthropology at Penn State in 1980. That program taught me an enduring life lesson: No matter where or when, humans thrive by adapting to changes in their environments. My personal environment changed quickly when the head of my dissertation committee left Penn State and my wife, Rosemary Blieszner ’82 PhD H&HD, accepted a faculty position at Virginia Tech.

The plan was that I would form a new committee at Virginia Tech, but the anthropology section of the sociology department closed soon after we arrived. It was time for me to adapt. Before I completed my undergraduate degree, I had gone through a four-year apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). I then worked as a journeyman electrician at industrial sites in Pittsburgh during summers while in grad school. So, with absolutely no background in business, I took a risk and became an electrical contractor. I met with the closest IBEW business agent in this nonunion territory and agreed never to compete with an IBEW contractor. I kept that promise through 37 years of company ownership.

By 2013, my thoughts were turning toward retirement when a friend in Virginia Tech’s sociology department suggested I might be interested in his graduate seminar called Culture and Society. It was fascinating. For the next four years, I divided my time between taking a course or two at a time and running the business. Finally, in 2017, I sold the business and returned to graduate school full time. It was a daunting transition. One course I took was called Feminist Theory. I felt vulnerable walking into that classroom for the first time; by age and generation, it seemed as though there was nobody like me. But the folks in that class were bright, witty, and most significantly, respectful of all the diversity in that room.

Last year, I completed my doctoral research on the impact of the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia. In December, at 75, I stepped across the stage as the oldest person to earn a Ph.D. that year, and one of the oldest ever. When I was given the opportunity to speak, my thoughts returned to that class in feminist theory. The respect I encountered there was rooted in Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community. Those principles provide safe space to speak one’s truth, make mistakes, maybe change an attitude or opinion, and then be better for it. I encouraged my fellow graduates to keep those principles in their own cultural toolkits, no matter where they were going. And I suggested that as they face a changing world, they adapt to that environment by taking their own risks, allowing themselves to be a bit vulnerable, and then working as hard as possible to create the very best version of themselves.


Steve Gerus is an instructor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.