From High School Dropout to Valued Professional

John McMillan speaking at the annual UIS Scholarship Luncheon on November 2, 2016
Above: John McMillan speaking at the annual UIS Scholarship Luncheon on November 2, 2016

John McMillan dropped out of high school when he was 15.

That has to be said first because it makes his graduation from UIS next May with a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems all the more impressive.

The fact that he already has a job lined up at OSF Healthcare in Peoria, IL, following graduation makes his achievement even more extraordinary.

Online classes helped him in a surprising way to reach his goals—but that part of the story comes later.

Always the same question

John is one of those bright kids who just did not thrive in a typical classroom. In grade school, he easily became bored, frequently questioned assignments and only dug deeper into his own interests (at the expense of other—required—topics).

What saved him was an exceptional ability to do well on tests. With that skill, he floated through grade school, rarely doing homework. That success vanished in junior high school.

Most bright kids are inquisitive. The only question John kept asking was, “Why do I need to do all this work? I already understand what you’re teaching.” Without answers he considered good enough, John stopped listening in class or doing any homework. His grades plummeted.

“Looking back,” he says, “I can see two possible explanations. First, the education system didn’t match my learning style. Second, I was lazy.”

But one thing John tries not to do is place blame either on himself or the school system. “You just have to keep moving forward,” he says, “and try to adapt.”

“A tidal wave came down”

At 13, the need to adapt became even more difficult when John was diagnosed with mental health issues. He says it felt like a tidal wave had crashed over him.

“If you’re 13,” he says, “and you tell a friend you are not going to school because of a severe flu, that’s no problem. But if you tell them you are not going to school because you are so sad that you can’t get out of bed, none of your friends is going to understand that.”

It would have helped if someone at home or at school had helped him realize that he had an illness, that it’s something he would have to battle, and that he hadn’t done anything to deserve or cause it. Without that reinforcement, John eventually stopped going to classes entirely in high school.

He was living in California at the time, and at first the school district tried to provide a teacher who would come to John’s home to help him keep on track with his assignments. “But essentially I stopped doing work entirely,” John says. He never finished high school.

John did still do well on standardized tests, however, and at 16 he passed California’s high school proficiency exam (like a GED).

Through all this, John says, “the only thing I had going for me was that I’m not at all a lazy or unmotivated person at work. There, I feel like I’m doing something purposeful, something that affects people’s lives.”

In fact, John tends to excel at work and has often been promoted.

On his own

At 18, looking for someplace less expensive to live than California, John’s family moved to central Illinois. John came with them. Soon he moved out on his own and began supporting himself with work in retail.

“Paying my own way was a game changer,” he says. “I went from someone who had flunked out of high school to taking classes at the community college.” He worked retail while at the community college, starting off as a cashier and moving up to assistant manager.

It took him three years to finish a two-year community college program, but along the way he definitely experienced successes. He started out in remedial math, for example, and ended up doing well in business calculus. Best of all, as a part-time student working fulltime to support himself, he still finished community college with a 3.25 GPA.

Finding a way to make UIS work

After a short stint in Carbondale, John moved to Springfield and started taking classes on campus at UIS. “I remember thinking that if I just got into UIS,” he says, “I would feel like I had made it. Getting the acceptance letter was a huge emotional moment for me.”

He was especially excited to be able to attend school without having to work, but that backfired on John. Mental issues just get worse if you’re sitting alone at home, he says, without people around or something to keep you busy.

He had certainly challenged himself. He majored in Management Information Systems, a program that combines business and computers. He had also joined the first group of MIS students at UIS getting a certificate in the new specialty, Health Care Informatics.

In Springfield, however, without a job to keep him motivated, John’s grades began to fall.

A cold call leads to a dream job

John knew he needed a change, so he moved back to Peoria and tried to get a job at OSF Healthcare, an integrated health care network based in Peoria.

“I cold called them,” John says, “and told them I wanted a career with OSF. They hired me for an internship—one of only three hired out of 160 people who applied for the program. I don’t mind saying that I’m proud of that!”

John thinks he received the internship because he actually called OSF rather than just sending in his resume. HIs specialty in Health Care Informatics probably helped as well.

With a job at OSF—he now works 25 hours a week while taking classes at UIS—John is doing much better in school. “I have a very regular schedule now, which is fantastic. It makes it so much easier to plan my study time.”

In Peoria, John also has good friends who encourage him and enjoy being with him.

John received help staying in school from the Dave and Jan Larson Management Information Systems Scholarship, created by one of John’s MIS professors. “The scholarship was huge,” he says, “just huge for letting me continue.”

Because he has overcome so many obstacles to achieve success in his education, John was chosen to be a student speaker at UIS’ annual scholarship luncheon, attended by donors and recipients.

“Online works better for me”

John now takes mostly online classes. “Online has been fantastic for me,” he says. On campus, with scheduled class times, John frequently skipped classes if he wasn’t feeling well. “It’s something that has gotten me into a lot of trouble.”

Online, there are no classes to skip. Instead, John can fit his coursework comfortably into his schedule, around his job at OSF.

“They tell me at OSF that school has to be my primary concern,” John says, “but it never has been. Work is much more fulfilling for me.”

At OSF, John has done so well that they have already offered him a fulltime job following graduation.

“I feel like this is it,” he says. “I have put failure behind me, and I can finally get to where I’m doing what I’m good at—being an employee who contributes, a good co-worker, and hopefully getting into a leadership role.”

A question for you

Have you also taken classes both on campus and online and discovered, like John, that online works better for you? We’d love to hear your story. Please email Marilyn Kok or call her at 217-206-6036.