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Building a Life in Construction

Michael Johnson stands inside a building under construction

Construction Management graduate Michael Johnson addresses the 2021 CCAPS graduating class

Michael “Mike” Johnson started working in construction when he was 14, cleaning up sites with the neighborhood kids. He worked a variety of other jobs in the field through high school and a few years of college. When he couldn’t decide on a course of study, he left school and went to work in the construction division of a company his dad was running, joined the union, and became a carpenter’s apprentice.

Nearly 30 years and multiple positions in construction later—from handyman to project manager to foreman—Mike graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Construction Management from the University of Minnesota College of Continuing and Professional Studies. He completed the degree while working full-time and raising a family, whom he credits as a primary source of support and encouragement.

Mike was one of two invited to address their fellow CCAPS graduates at the May 8 commencement ceremony. In this transcript of his speech, he shows that we’re never too old to follow a dream, advises us to cherish the friends we make along the way, and explains why he has hope for the next generation.

To distinguished guests, Regent McMillan, Dean Bob Stine, faculty and staff of the University of Minnesota, friends, and family: thank you for taking the time today to celebrate our mutual achievements. My fellow graduates, just take a second of silence and be in the moment. You are here, you have made it to graduation day, and you should be proud of your accomplishment!!!!

Where do I even start? How did I end up here talking to all of you? My faculty director Peter Hilger and academic advisor Megan Seltz nominated me to speak, unbeknownst to me. At first, I thought it was a joke—I am a construction manager, I build things, I do not give speeches. But they were convinced my story is important to tell. So, here I am and here we go…

I feel very honored and humbled by this opportunity to share my journey with you. I am guessing that we all have some similarities in our stories, even if we come from different backgrounds, are at different stages of life, and take our careers in different directions.

My college experience started many years ago when gas was 89 cents a gallon, a brand-new Ford Mustang cost $7,500, and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour.

My college experience started many years ago when gas was 89 cents a gallon, a brand-new Ford Mustang cost $7,500, and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. You could still rock a mullet and you hoped someday you could afford a brick cell phone to make phone calls from anywhere—how cool would that be?

After two and half years of drifting through classes and not having any real direction I decided to pursue other interests. Let’s fast forward to fall of 2012, 20 plus years after I started my original journey. At this point, I have a family of four and a career of over 20 years and I came back to school. So yeah, I have done things a little backwards such as starting a career first and then going back to finish my degree as an older student. Coming back to college was overwhelming at first, like climbing a mountain:

  • How LONG was this going to take????
  • How was I going to WORK a full-time job and take classes???
  • WHEN was I going to spend time with my family???
  • Am I TOO OLD to go back to school?

These are just a few of the 100-plus questions I asked myself. I am sure everyone here felt uncertainty at the beginning of your journey, too. With the support of my wife of 20 years and two daughters, I began taking two classes that fall of 2012. Over the next few years, I would take 1–3 classes a semester.

I was usually one of the older students in the classes and during more than one of my group projects I was told by a group member, “that is what my Dad would say.” Truth be told, it did bother me a little bit at first, but I learned to embrace it and say, “Sounds like your Dad is an intelligent guy.”

As time went on, school was just part of my normal routine. In September, I started classes and in May classes ended. Every year was the same routine for eight years. But it was not easy! There was my job to manage, house maintenance projects to do, kids to raise, and everything else that life throws at you. I would think to myself, “Is this worth it?” or “I am so tired of school! How many years have I been doing this?” Despite those thoughts, two weeks before the next semester started, I would log in to MyU to register for my next 2–3 classes for that semester.

I am proof you are never too old. So, embrace knowledge and keep learning—it is worth it.

Slow but steady wins the race! School was a constant for me even when my career changed directions, we continued to raise our family, and a few years ago I became eligible for my AARP membership. Now that I look back at the journey, I am remembering all the support and people that I have met along the way who helped with the day-to-day challenges. While on my path over the last eight years I have faced many challenges, struggles, changes, and disappointments such as not being able to go to Costa Rica for the Capstone project due to COVID and struggling to drive down to campus after work and then drive home at 9:00 p.m.

Also, I have had wins and successes like getting to have my name on the Golden Pen award with my team and being part of the team for a National competition and placing better than any year before us. During those tough times, I put my head down, kept moving and made it through. At times of success, I would take a time-out to pick my head up to take a quick look around to appreciate the moment.

Michael Johnson, with brownstone buildings of the Minneapolis warehouse district in background

As I reflect over those times, it is the struggles and challenges that have made me stronger, and the successes that have given me the motivation to keep pushing ahead. You realize at some point that you are not on this journey alone. I am not talking about the support that you have on the outside of school, but the people that are on a similar journey—you, my fellow students. However long it took you to get here, I would like it if you could think about the people you have met and the relationships you have made along the way. This is one of the most important parts of this journey for me, because that personal connection makes it real and lets you know that you are not on this journey alone. I know that I have made some lifelong relationships during this time.

I wish to thank all the people outside of school that have helped me on my journey. Thank you specifically to my wife Mary and family Kate and Anna for all their support and understanding, I would not be here without them. Also, thank you to my employer, RJM Construction, for the support and help with everything they have done to support me during my journey. To Peter, Megan, and the rest of the faculty and staff here at the University of Minnesota who helped to make this experience a great one, thank you. Lastly, I want to share gratitude to my fellow students for taking this journey together.

One realization I had recently is that my classmates are resilient and persistent. I have heard people say in passing, “I am worried about the next generation.” From now on, I will respond to those people and say, “No worries, they can handle whatever is thrown at them.” The graduates that we are honoring today did not take the easy path. They made it through whatever has been put in front of them, and let’s be honest, the last year has not been easy. The next generation of Construction Management alums will include my oldest daughter who is a student here in the same program that I am graduating from. The next generation also includes my youngest daughter who is thriving in high school. I know that they will also be unstoppable.

To answer the questions, I asked at the beginning:

  • How long is this going to take me? It took me 8 years, 16 semesters, and 26 classes.
  • How was I going to have a career and take classes? Lots of support from family and friends by helping me make this a priority.
  • How was I going to spend time with my family? It works out somehow, you just make it happen.
  • Am I too old to go back to school? I am proof you are never too old. So, embrace knowledge and keep learning—it is worth it.

Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotel chains, said, “Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” This sentiment embodies the characteristics of the Class of 2021—we do not quit!

Thank you for listening to my story. I am very proud to represent my fellow students at this ceremony and the class of 2021. Congratulations Class of 2021! Go celebrate and be proud of all your hard work and your accomplishments!

Thank you!