Fresh out of Rochester High School in 1989, Patrick Zandecki knew a career in the military was the route he would follow. He did enroll at Centralia College, took a few classes, got scared and left.
“I had zero confidence,” Zandecki said. “I was convinced that I was not going to be able to go to college.”
That attitude confirmed his next move, a career in the army. Zandecki spent 13 years in a mix of active duty and National Guard service that found him as a front-line soldier in Operation Desert Storm and later in Iraqi Freedom. He also served as a member of the National Guard pulling security duty in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics and later in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Along the way he married, witness the birth of two of his children and the adoption of a third.
Then a different reality moved in.
In 1999, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2007 leaving him to raise the kids. To further complicate things the army wanted to station him overseas, which could create problems with his parenting responsibilities. He shopped around for a military occupation that would fit him but nothing appealed. In 2008 he was granted a hardship discharge.
He turned to alcohol to deal with the pain in his life. He was, however, sober enough to realize that education could make a difference. He returned to Centralia College, shaken and still lacking confidence. But he needed to start his education campaign to restart his life.
“This is where the people at Centralia College made the difference,” Zandecki said. “I came here with problems and wasn’t sure where I would be going. The teachers and staff kept me on task. They wouldn’t let me quit. They pulled me up time and time again. I can never say enough about how everyone at this college helped me.”
More than course content, Zandecki said, “Instructors like Randy Johnson (associate professor of English), taught me to overcome the roadblocks I put up. I didn’t think I could do English and he encouraged me, worked with me, and showed me that I could. Pat Pringle (associate professor of earth sciences) stood by me in ways I can’t describe. That was important.”
Zandecki also credits other instructors with providing counseling, tutoring, and caring attitudes that “are getting me through,” he said. “They looked past my problems and my feelings in a way that I couldn’t. Each one is an amazing person.”
With support from the college faculty and staff, he has marched from a life as a hard drinking soldier and a person who could barely make two words come together in a written sentence, to an individual who has not tasted alcohol in over two years and can stand in front of hundreds of people to deliver a presentation.
Then Larry McGee, executive director of the bachelor degree program, grabbed him and wouldn’t let go.
“He told me I couldn’t quit, that I needed to keep going. He showed me what I needed to do to get into the bachelor’s program,” said Zandecki. “He taught me to believe in myself.” And Zandecki paid attention.
While members of the college faculty kept Zandecki engaged and on track, it was still his work that made success possible. This June he will be in the first Centralia College Bachelor of Applied Science in Management graduating class.
And there’s another successful outcome to his time at Centralia College: he received coaching on how to apply for a job. It paid off and now Zandecki is the Veterans Benefit Specialist for Lewis County.
“I have landed a job caring for my fellow veterans,” he said. “I can do something important to help others.”
He credits everyone at Centralia College for his achievement. “They (faculty, staff and students) are more than mentors to me, they are friends, family, teachers, and fellow students. They are the driving force that gave me the skills, and confidence I have today,” Zandecki said. “I have gained my confidence to the point where I will be able to stand with the most elite of students at Centralia College.”