More than 860 Florida Gulf Coast University students walked across the graduation stage at Alico Arena on Sunday, each with a unique story. Jacob Fricke's meant overcoming homelessness, crippling debt and a third-grade reading level.
Fricke’s college career had a rough start. He had come out of the U.S. Army in late 2014 with a failed marriage and $30,000 in debt. The death of his grandmother in August 2015 delayed his start to college by one semester.
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“She was more like my mom than my grandmother,” Fricke said. "On her deathbed, she told me to go back to school. I was working at a cleaning business, but she said, 'Jake, you need to stop.' I attribute (graduating) today with what my grandmother told me that day."
The death sent his family into a downward spiral, Fricke said. Fricke was living with his mother when she was evicted from their house. He was homeless, jumping from couch to couch. It wasn’t his first time. Fricke said he’d been homeless eight times since he was 13.
At 24, Fricke enrolled at State College of Florida in spring 2016. Poor reading comprehension put Fricke behind the curve. He said he had a third-grade reading level when he graduated high school.
A bus depot became Fricke’s home while he sorted out his life and what was next. He said he needed a degree, and he needed money.
“I got to the point where I just had to get the next thing done,” Fricke said.
Four part-time jobs, scholarships and very little sleep helped the veteran get back on track. Fricke said he is now debt-free and a top-level reader and writer.
“The first two semesters, I failed,” Fricke said. “I got put on academic probation. I was scared. I had to make it work. I said, ‘What is most important?’ Well, the professors gave me a lot to read. So I sat down and said, ‘Ok, I’m going to read. I’m going to make this happen.’”
Near the end of his two-year program at State College of Florida, Fricke met April Cordonnier, who lived in Fort Myers. The two began dating “just after I got my life together,” Fricke said.
Fricke’s original plan was to move to Tampa and attend the University of South Florida. But Cordonnier, who graduated from FGCU, told her boyfriend about her former college.
Fricke, 27, graduated from FGCU with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in teaching.
“He has a tremendous perseverance, and he used that not just to succeed in school but also to give back to the community,” said Elizabeth Bouldin, assistant professor of history.
Fricke said he wanted to become a history teacher during his time at State College of Florida. But schools were more interested in hiring English teachers, he said.
Fricke accepted the change and is ready to help struggling students improve their reading as a teacher at Varsity Lakes Middle School in Lehigh Acres, he said.
The program has a special place in Fricke’s past. He was in a similar intensive reading program at his high school before graduating.
“Lots of kids are in the situation I was in,” Fricke said. “I can reach out to them.”
Fricke has already visited the school and met his soon-to-be students, he said. Three kids were standing on their desks on his first day last month.
“My first impression was, ‘Oh my god, what have I done,’” he said. “But I was able to get them reading and do a critical analysis of a text. By the end of the day, I was like, ‘I got this. I can do this.’”
This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.