The College Years: Stories about leaving home for university

This week we present two stories from people who left home for university and discovered something unexpected.

Part 1: After Kenny Kinds begins lying to his parents about his grades, he has to question why he is in engineering school in the first place.

Kenny Kinds is an application developer/comedian and yes, those two things pair together nicely. He also co-hosts the monthly storytelling show Sorry Please Continue at The Heavy Anchor in St. Louis.

Part 2: After a tragedy, Brianna Shaughnessy discovers a different way to heal at the Great Barrier Reef.

Brianna Shaughnessy is a PhD Student in Environmental Biology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Prior to joining Jarrett Byrnes' lab as a Coasts and Communities Fellow, she completed a Master's of Professional Science through Northeastern University's Three Seas Program. Her past research focussed on surveying kelp forests with the purpose of assessing the impacts of global change on such critical ecosystems. As a native of Cape Cod, MA, an integral part of Brianna's upbringing involved constantly questioning and developing a deep respect for coastal communities. Her current research focusses on the development of sustainable fisheries practices in hopes of acting as liaison between the community that raised her and the scientists aiming to understand and protect it.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Kenny Kinds

Marine Biology is what you pick when you don’t know anything about marine biology.  That’s how I found that out.  Nowhere near water is where I am. 

Anyway, I should have known something was up because I was at a seminar.  I’m sitting at this seminar, I’m 17 years old and I should have known something was up because I was there with my dad and it was a weeknight.  My dad never left the house during the week.  He worked for General Motors and he worked from 6:00 to 2:00 and he would come home and he'd be asleep by 3:00 p.m. and he was done. 

But we were sitting at this seminar and there was nothing but this line of… this was the early ‘90s so you don’t really know how old a dude was.  I think they were middle aged but they could have been between 23 and like 70.  I don't know. They’re just wearing the shirts you get at like Target back then off mannequins and which was like several degrees of taupe.  They looked like drywall is what they looked like. 

But I’m sitting there and I’m looking at my dad and my dad has nothing but like hope and love in his eyes, because he really likes this. At this point, I don't know what’s going on until they start talking about the University of Missouri-Rolla, and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, my God.  My dad wants me to go to engineering school.”  

Kenny Kinds shares his story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in March 2019. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Kenny Kinds shares his story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in March 2019. Photo by David Kovaluk.

And that’s not compatible with how I know education works because, a little bit about me, when I went to high school I always associated education with fear.  My dad grew up in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s and he came up to Missouri as part of the great migration.  He came here after his mom came up here and so education was always very important to him, but it wasn’t very important to me. 

In fact, in my placement exams in high school we had to fill up this Scantron while we took this test.  On this Scantron, I just made a Jesus fish.  That’s a true story.  Which made sense because it was a Jesuit high school so it’s like who loves more about God and education than I do?  Evidently, they don’t because they put a bunch of remedial classes.  So that was my high school career. 

And my dad, God bless him, he didn’t go to high school, he didn’t graduate from high school, didn’t really get a lot of formal education in his younger years but then he was always trying to help me with my homework, which he was the last person who should have been trying to help me with my homework.  Just imagine trying to help somebody learn how to swim when you also don’t know how to swim. 

So it would just turn into these yelling matches.  And I remember distinctly one time he tried to help me with my math homework and we got into a gigantic argument because he used the phrase comparing apples to oranges and I told him you could compare those two because they're both pieces of fruit.  That ended up with me crying and him yelling at me until he literally just went to sleep. 

So anyway, I’m at this seminar, fast forward.  I have no options, right?  I’m not very good in school.  I’m not going to get a scholarship.  I know a state school is cheap so what I'll do is I'll just apply for the University of Missouri-Rolla and that I did. 

In my senior year, I remember it was right after I got home from school in the afternoon, I got a letter from Rolla saying that I got in.  Somehow, by the grace of God, I did. But looking back on it, I compare it to Snow White getting the poison apple, because I was screaming like, “Yeah, man, I got into college.  I got into the University of Missouri-Rolla,” but at the back of my head I’m like, “Oh, shit.  I don't know what I’m doing.” 

It’s like at that moment, the thing that Curb Your Enthusiasm should come up and then that’s it.  Directed by Robert B. Weide, and that’s the end of my life.  That’s where I fucked up right there.  It wasn’t even me. 

So I was really excited to go to college. I go down to the University of Missouri-Rolla and I’m meeting all these people.  I realize then that I don't fit in here at all because they all seem to know what they're doing.  They all seem like they want to be there and everything is going fine except I’m taking an Intro to Engineering class.  It was just a survey class.  That’s all it was.  And I ended up getting a C in that class, which should have made a point that I shouldn’t have been down there. 

But I remember sticking with the dude who taught the class, was this guy who wore like a General Pershing hat or a pith helmet.  I don't remember now.  I’m trying to remember it.  But he wore that General Pershing hat and he wore like a duster.  He was one of those people that if he came into the room you'd be like, “For real, dude?  Are you serious?  This is a real person right now?” 

And he was talking about how tough engineering is and I assume it was a weed-out class.  It was just to let you know that, hey, this is what engineering is. But I’m sitting there like, “Man, given the opportunity, I could kick your ass.  I mean, come on, dude.  For real?”

So I ended up getting a C in that class because I would just fall asleep in class all the time because I wasn’t drinking coffee then. 

But I’m struggling through these classes, I’m struggling through my first year in college and then that year is over and my grades were not that good.  But this was the thing.  It was the early ‘90s, so all you had to do was just blame things on the post office when your parents asked you where your grades were. 

I just said, “I guess it’s the post office man.” Why don’t they just go to school, right? 

Ironically, my mom worked for the post office so this was not… what’s going on, right?  Where’s my… where will I bottom out? 

So my sophomore year, it’s the same thing.  Things are getting worse.  I’m taking chemistry classes, chem lab, and I can’t ask these people for help. I’m too proud to ask for help. But also, I don't think these people want to give you help because they also expect you to know these things.  It’s like most of the people down there were like if Reddit had their own college, that was in University of Missouri-Rolla at that point. 

So again, sophomore year is done and my grades aren’t any better.  I’m thinking to myself, “Well, at some point, somebody is going to find out what’s going on and pull me out of here.”

My parents asked me for my report card and the same thing I said last year somehow worked this year.  I don't want to make it seem like my parents weren’t diligent.  They were.  I was just very adept at not telling the truth. 

So I’m coming up on my junior year and I’m driving down to Rolla to register for classes like the weekend before classes start.  I’m driving down because Rolla is only like an hour-and-a-half away so I’m driving down there.  Again, at this point, my grades aren’t really that good.  They're just… well, I wouldn’t tell you that but you'll have to ask my report card also.  You're not getting that. 

So I drive down there and, at this point, I need a school to get into because every school at this point you have to apply for school to get into if you want to continue going down there and I was out of options.  So I just went to the Environmental Engineering School.  I just walked in.  I know nothing about environmental engineering.  I just kind of walked into the building looking for the dean, seeing if he would sign my paper to let me go here. 

Kenny Kinds shares his story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in March 2019. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Kenny Kinds shares his story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in March 2019. Photo by David Kovaluk.

So I get a meeting with this dude and I go into his office and he was a nice man.  He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie.  I’m not going to hold any of this.  We all make bad decisions in our lives.  He was the dean.  I can’t really make fun of him that much, right? 

So I’m sitting there and I’m waiting for him to sign the paper like every other dean did except this time he looks at my grades and he looks at me and he's like, “Why are you down here, man?” 

Normally, I would say something to try to get out of the situation, just make up something.  But, at this point, nobody had ever asked me why am I down here and it was like a great weight had been lifted off my chest.  Somebody had finally said, “Man, this isn’t for you and you should probably leave.  Now, I had a reason to leave. 

So he's like, “Listen, man.  This is what I’m going to do.  I’m going to sign this piece of paper so that you can come down here again for this semester.  But you don’t come back here, all right?  I want you to promise me that you will not sign up classes again and you don’t come back down here.” 

At first I felt bad because I was rejected by an entire school.  But as I thought about it I was like, finally, I can make a decision now on what I want to do, because I hadn’t thought like that in my life up to that point. 

So I went one more semester, but the joke is on him. I stayed down there another semester, just living in Rolla, Missouri, which is as bad as it sounds.  I was just down there just lifting weights.  I was like fit as hell but for who?  This was all dudes.  Like come on, man.  Really? 

So that last semester my dad comes and picks me up and we’re driving back.  We happen to get into… I’m driving and I fall asleep as I’m driving the car back, which is a theme of my college career.  I fall asleep and, by the grace of God, we go into a median.  We don’t go into oncoming traffic because it was two lanes of traffic. 

Everything gets destroyed.  Like the car gets wrecked, I lose all my stuff.  It’s all over the highway.  When we get home that night my mom is like, “Hey, I’m just glad all of you are okay.  You know, you could have been killed but the only that happened was the car was wrecked so I’m just happy that all of you are safe.” 

And I was listening to my mom say that but in the back of my head I’m like, “This woman is going to kill me when she finds out I can’t go back to college where they had been sending me for three years.”  It’s a money pit for the most part. 

So I finally worked up the courage.  This was like later on in the summer and it was getting to that point they were like, “What are you going to do?”  I finally worked up the courage where I just told my dad. 

I’m like, “Listen, I can’t go back down there.  It’s not for me.  I’m struggling.  I know you want the best for me.  I know you want me to get a college education.  I know you love engineering but I can’t do that, so I don't know what I’m going to do.”

And I was expecting my dad to explode.  I thought he was going to come crushing down upon me and I was going to end up on the streets.  But he, as like most older, like your parents do when you think they're about to fuck you up or just kick you out on the street, he looked at me and he was like, “Listen, figure it out.  Just figure out what you want to do.” 

That took me aback.  I was like super shocked that he said that. 

So fast forward, and my dad passed away a couple of years ago, but I was able to have conversations with him right before he died.  One of the things we talked about, I was finally able to tell him what happened when I was down there at school.  One of the things that he impressed upon me was like, “I didn’t want you to get an engineering degree.  I wanted you to get an engineering degree but it didn’t matter to me.  I saw you struggling and trying to find something to do and I thought engineering would be good for you,” because one of the things I wanted to do, I know I said marine biology but that’s not completely true.  They asked me when I wasn’t thinking.  I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I wanted to go to school for film but, as you know, college film school costs a lot of money. 

But he said to me, he was like, “Listen. I saw you struggling and just trying to find something to do.  What I wanted you to learn, I wanted you to learn how to survive.  Because with math and science, they can’t take that away from you.  Two plus two will always be two plus two, but art is subjective.  It’s up to somebody else to say that’s good or that’s bad.” 

Like back in my day it was just Spike Lee.  Ask your parents.  That’s all it was. 

So that was my experience with the University of Missouri-Rolla.  Thank you.

Part 2: Brianna Shaughnessy

It was sophomore year science class and the most popular boy at our high school in Cape Cod passed me a note.  I thought for sure he had the wrong person.  Teenagers are awkward but I was an exceptionally awkward teenager so you can imagine how horrified I was when I realized the note was for me from Corey Dooling, the boy that all the girls were distracted by. 

He had this platinum blonde hair and these bright, turquoise blue eyes and this smile that lit up every classroom that he walked into.  He's the kid that teachers hated to admit that they loved but you could tell that they were rooting for him.  Compare that to me, quiet, only child.  I was on crutches for the better part of two years because of reconstructive knee surgeries.  That ruled me out of team sports so I was an obligatory bookworm. 

So holding the note like a hot potato, I had no choice but to open it but I was totally confused by what it said.  “Are you really going to take that?”

Corey was referring to something that I didn’t know that he had seen by my locker when a boy that was asked to carry my book bag while I was on crutches had tossed it down the hallway in this fit of teenage rage and I had gone hobbling after it on my crutches.  Corey thought I should have stood up for myself, or he could if I needed him to. 

Brianna Shaughnessy shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Brianna Shaughnessy shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

See, Corey was a problem solver.  One time, when his guardian wouldn’t let him go on a school surf trip to North Carolina, he simply forged her signature.  Problem solved.  In the dead of winter at the first sign of a nor’easter, Corey would skip school so that he could catch the best waves on the outer Cape beaches with just a seven millimeter wetsuit between him and the frigid Atlantic Ocean.  I thought he was crazy, but I was also drawn to it. 

It wouldn’t be until junior year that Corey would start inviting me on those trips and I would start lying to my family and my friends to go with him that I realized something serious might be building there.  I truly savor those moments that I got to see this deep connection that Corey had with the ocean.  That’s how my first love snuck up on me. 

Corey would go on to do the normal high school sweetheart things, like take me to prom, but he would also rip me out of my daydreams and he would teach me to walk into every room and look at every stranger as a new friend, not someone to be anxious or awkward around.  It’s through those lessons that I would learn how Corey ended up with us by way of Colorado from a bad home environment now raised by his grandmother on Cape Cod. 

A few years after Corey passed me that note, we sat down the night before I went to college with this travel guide that I had given him for his eighteenth birthday.  The guide was to Hawaii but that conversation quickly turned into a talk about traveling the world.  In the back, we tucked this note of the craziest adventures that our 18-year-old brains could come up with.  Get a tattoo, skydive, scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef, surf in Australia, travel around Central America.

I wanted to be an artist, Corey wanted to be a surfer, but those careers aren’t exactly encouraged by high school guidance counselors so I went on to study art and Corey stayed on Cape eventually becoming an EMT.  We’d see each other on weekends and holidays, but before I knew it I was a sophomore in college.

Towards the end of that year, on March 30th 2009, I turned off my phone so I could go to sleep.  In the morning, it was flooded with messages.  Not knowing where to start and sensing this impending chaos, I called my best friend.  She answered and said that Corey was in an accident.  I remember asking her if he was okay, what hospital he was at, and she said no.  And I just remember dropping the phone. 

Later, I would find out that Corey was driving on a windy road on a rainy night.  Our high school guidance counselor’s son was backing out of their blind driveway.  Corey’s car simultaneously lost control.  Because he was an EMT, some of the first responders were his friends.  Corey died at the scene a week shy of his 21st birthday. 

Things black out for a while after that.  I remember my father picking me up and taking me back to Cape Cod where our high school had created this safe space for us to grieve.  And it’s in those same hallways where Corey and I built our love that his absence started to trickle throughout our tiny, tiny community. 

I remember an ambulance completely blacked out with cloth at his funeral.  I remember seeing my father cry for the first time.  And I remember feeling completely alienated wherever I went, especially around my college friends who now felt so much younger than I felt. 

Feeling isolated and also medicated, I push my way through my sophomore year of college and I watch this wave of numbness and grief wash over my best friends from home.  Many of us have taken belongings of Corey’s that had sentimental meaning.  I found a pack of clove cigarettes and a t-shirt that smelled like him, but someone had the foresight to stash away the travel guide.  When it came back to me, it still had the list in the back. 

Desperate for a sense of direction and a way to feel like I was taking control of my own grief, I decided I had to do those things for myself and also for Corey.  Where most art students would to go France or Spain to study abroad, I signed up to go to Australia.  My mom, also grieving, joined me on adventures in skydiving and bungee jumping and, for the year anniversary of Corey’s death, we set out to dive the Great Barrier Reef. 

I remember the instructors just before we got in the water giving us this debrief on how to vomit into our regulators and thinking, “This is not what I expected.”  But when we got in the water, I didn’t feel the claustrophobia that most people warned me about.  I just felt the warm embrace of tropical waters.  And by the time we got to the bottom, I was just enamored with how quiet it was.  All I could hear was the bubbles from my own breathing and my own heartbeat. 

The closer that I looked, the more that I saw.  There was this giant mound that I thought was a rock, but when we came up to it it ended up being a giant clam.  It had this bright, purple, fleshy mouth and these dozens of turquoise blue eyes and it was just remarkable.  They were the same color as Corey’s eyes. 

Brianna Shaughnessy shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Brianna Shaughnessy shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Around the clam were fish and anemones and corals and so many things had gathered in this tiny little snapshot of the ocean and I wanted to know what everything was. 

Corey taught me that I could be anything that I wanted to be so I came up from that dive determined to be a Biology major.  I would go on to take classes in ecology in Costa Rica and Belize and, eventually, I would do a Master’s in Marine Biology.  That would take me on crazy diving adventures to Panama where I swim with whale sharks and Friday Harbor, Washington where pods of endangered orca whales live.  Finally, after being told I couldn’t do things for most of my life because of my knees, I found somewhere that I could excel intellectually and physically. 

Then I faced a crossroads in the year before funding came in for me to start my PhD where I could go back to Cape Cod or I could do what Corey would do, create my own adventure.  So I ended up in the landlocked mountains of Colorado, I worked in a sushi restaurant, I skied fresh powder, I hiked in the Rockies and I even met someone.  So by the time the buzzer rang for me to come back to Massachusetts, I almost stayed out there. 

But eight years after Corey died, three weeks before I was meant to drive back to Boston, I stopped at a lit crosswalk for a pedestrian.  A 17-year-old on her cellphone rear-ended me going almost 30 miles an hour.  Time paused, as it tends to, and the pedestrian and I locked eyes and he jumped out of the way.  The next thing I knew was this bone-chilling crunch of metal and that rush of adrenaline that your body gives you when it thinks it’s going to die. 

All at once, I physically experienced the things that I had nightmares about, about Corey’s last moments on this earth.  That accident would follow me back to Massachusetts where I was devastated to realize that diving wasn’t the same.  I'd come up disoriented and nauseous and I had to change the trajectory of my research completely. 

But the day after the accident, as I tried to pick up the pieces of my life and get myself back to the east coast, Corey was right there, or it could have been my own brain at this point, saying, “Are you really going to take that?”

This time I knew the answer was no, because I already stood up to the worst thing I could possibly take.  I lost Corey.  Thank you.