Grad student finds redemption after dropping out decades ago

    “I hated this place. I hated Northwestern.” Not what you’d expect to hear from someone who, over a span of 30 years, has been student, faculty and staff at Northwestern.

    But when Northwestern graduate Alan Wolff says he hated NU, it’s more than a passing remark. He’s not talking about a midterm he missed or the foul Chicago weather; he’s talking about a lifetime of failures that he’s finally made good.

    Alan Wolff. Photo by Rena Behar / North by Northwestern.

    Wolff dropped out during his junior year almost three decades ago, but used the time off to learn about himself and why he was pursuing his education. Now he’s a proud graduate, having received his Ph.D. in computer science and electrical engineering in December.

    Wolff started out at NU as an undergrad in the fall of 1978. A self-proclaimed punk rocker, he felt he didn’t fit into the Northwestern social scene. His GPA hovered around 1.4, and after being placed on academic probation, he realized he couldn’t make the grades to stay at NU.

    “I was here because my parents wanted me to be here,” Wolff says. “I had no clue what I should be doing.”

    Wolff returned to his home in Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland in the mid-’80s with a degree in history. After graduating, Wolff applied for a job as an air traffic controller, thinking the job might be like playing video games. However, when he moved to Oklahoma City for training, he failed it.

    “It was almost like déjà vu,” Wolff says. “I was put in a new situation, it was my chance for a career and I failed it. I was in my mid-20s and I had no career, nothing, and no way to support myself. It was despair again.”

    Finding acceptance

    Wolff could have moved back to Maryland. Instead, he went to the one place he had ever felt accepted: the University Bible Fellowship in Evanston.

    When Wolff first met the University Bible Fellowship, he was a jaded atheist who had once organized a petition at his high school to ban clergy from graduation. He mocked the Fellowship and their beliefs, and pushed them as far as he could to see how they’d react.

    They accepted him. After NU kicked Wolff out, he joined the Bible Fellowship in Maryland and decided to become a Christian in his first year with the Maryland group. When he was down on his luck in Oklahoma, Evanston’s Bible Fellowship seemed like the right place to go.

    Sarah Barry, the retired general director of the Evanston fellowship, has known Wolff since his freshman year at NU. She says she respects Wolff for overcoming so many obstacles, and is encouraged to know a person who doesn’t give up.

    “Alan sets goals and goes after them,” Barry says. “I never doubted he’d get that PhD. Maybe someday he’ll be president of Northwestern.”

    Wolff moved back to Evanston and spent time transcribing Bible materials until the pastor told him to get a job. He went to NU’s Career Services and saw a listing for a computer programmer, a job he’d never done. Wolff was hired based on a NU connection and the assumption that if he had been president of his high school chess club, he’d be able to do programming.

    Around this time, Wolff met his wife, Vivian. After about a year, he started working for Northwestern’s Controller’s Office and University Enrollment. Wolff’s professional life was blossoming, but he still wanted to get an education.

    Third time’s the charm

    He applied for the professional masters program in electrical engineering at NU, earned his masters, and did so well that he decided to apply for regular graduate school. Over ten years, he took a couple of classes each term toward a Ph.D. while working full time for NU. Taking graduate classes with a full time job and a family wasn’t easy. The age gap didn’t help.

    “Again I felt like a misfit,” Wolff said. “I was an older guy with people who were almost half my age. It was weird, but I made friends,” Wolff said.

    Wolff was cramming for midterms when his kids were learning to walk. He was thinking about papers he had to write when he got off work. He finished his coursework and took the Ph.D. qualifying exam for electrical engineering.

    Wolff failed it. Twice.

    Because he had taken his classes over such a long period of time, many courses had changed entirely. Professors and textbooks had changed, and the material wasn’t the same.

    Over the next two years, Wolff tried to think of a way to overcome this new failure. He tried changing his Ph.D. to computer science, which had a simpler qualifying exam. Finally, Wolff passed. Last September he defended his thesis, and three months later he graduated from Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in computer science and electrical engineering.

    “People always asked me, ‘Alan, why are you trying to get a Ph.D.? You have a career already and seem to be making money, why are you putting yourself through that?’” Wolff said.

    “I’m doing it for my wife. I’m giving my kids something to shoot for, and I’m showing that no matter how many times you fail, you can overcome it.”

    Times have changed since Alan Wolff first aspired to earn a NU degree. He has dedicated more than ten years of his life to Northwestern University. Now, according to Wolff, he’s “one of the biggest fans of this place.”


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