French House Focus: Andy McLean
Andy McLean is one accomplished student. The Ogden Honors College junior is on track to graduate early; is currently working on his Honors thesis; is the recipient of a Phi Beta Kappa scholarship; and did we mention he’s also a devoted husband and father? What makes Andy stand out, however, is not his long list of achievements, but that he needed a second chance to get to this point. His first attempt at college ended in dismissal from LSU and academic bankruptcy, but he didn’t give up on his college dreams. With the support of his wife, Ashley, Andy returned to LSU with lessons learned, determined to make his second chance count.
Tell me a little bit of your background story. What happened the first time you enrolled at LSU?
I’m from Denham Springs and graduated from high school in 2005. I was living at home and LSU made the most sense. At the time I was planning to go into medicine. I graduated near the top of my class and didn’t have any problems, but after I enrolled at LSU, my focus on school started to disintegrate. My grades were never up to where they needed to be—I’d always start the semester strong but would never finish well. In the fall of the 2007 I was on academic probation and my personal life kind of started falling apart. I’m an only child and my parents had started going through a divorce. That November, a few days after my dad had surgery on his shoulder, he overdosed on pain medication while I was at home and had to be hospitalized. In the midst of everything they were going through, it was just a very depressing, empty place. So, I just stopped going to school and didn’t show up to my finals. My GPA dropped to a 1.7 and I was dismissed from the university and forced to sit out for at least 12 months. And so, at the time, I had in mind that I was going to get my life together and if I still wanted to go to medical school I was going to try academic bankruptcy. I started the process and got a job as a pharmacy technician and worked at that for five years.
How did you end up in the Honors College? What motivated you to apply even after everything you had been through?
You know, I never expected to be able to make the grades, but I guess being 26 years old at the time and married, there’s a different direction in your studies. You know what it takes and you know what a job is. My grades remained high and so I applied to the Ogden Honors College. I thought I should make the most of my opportunity. In the last year and a half I’ve shifted focus to academia—I’d like to go to graduate school and pursue my PhD in philosophy. The Ogden Honors College has been what can best prepare me and guide me through for that type of future.
What made you settle on philosophy once you reenrolled at LSU?
Well, I met my wife in 2010, we got married in 2012, and I came back in the spring of 2013. During that time I became a Christian and developed this foundation of faith that gave me a kind of redirection. Medicine wasn’t what I wanted to pursue and so I started off as an English major. I knew I wanted to go to seminary or some kind of post-secondary education and so English helped my writing skills. That first semester I took an ethics course in philosophy and that planted the seed. I realized that there are questions to be asked and things to figure out. I kept taking philosophy courses until it was time to become a philosophy major and I dropped English to a minor.
So how do you manage school with a family?
Well, my wife watches our daughter and, until recently, I was working as a youth pastor at a church in Central, and as a pharmacy technician. Both positions were part-time and very flexible, but I was never taking more than 15 hours a semester. I received two significant scholarships that enabled me to step away from those jobs at the beginning of the summer, focus on school and take more hours over the summer and this fall.
Speaking of scholarships—you received a Phi Beta Kappa Scholarship. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Phi Beta Kappa allotted $12,500 to the LSU chapter. The stipulations were that you had to be a junior, show financial need, be in good academic standing and be taking coursework that represented the values of Phi Beta Kappa. Phi Beta Kappa supports a broad array of studies in liberal arts education. I had to provide a transcript, a single page biography with future plans, what you would do with the funds, express your financial need and have a faculty member write you a letter of recommendation. I sent that off in February and I found out in April through an email that I had received the scholarship. I called my wife and my voice was shaking. We’re in a situation where we don’t know how we’re going to pay for my next semester of school or for our bills. So this changed everything. I could step down from working as a youth pastor and a pharmacy technician and push my graduation date up a semester. I also received the Paul M. Jennings Memorial Scholarship, which is a $5,000 award from The Bengal Group. The organization selects LSU students facing particular hardships, and the great thing about this organization is that they are just members of the community doing this out of their own good will. Depending on what funds they have available, they allot around five scholarships each year.
So tell me about your thesis.
Well, there are two aspects to my thesis, so LSU Professors Mary Sirridge and Gregory Schufreider, both in the Department of Philosophy, are both helping me with my thesis. What I’m focusing on is the relationship between Augustine and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger uses a couple of samples of Augustine in Being and Time, which was published in 1927. And what Heidegger wants to claim is that he is deconstructing the western tradition of philosophy and getting back to the question of being—that he is introducing a more fundamental way of understanding what it means to exist in that, how we exist in relationship to time. I’m arguing that Augustine is due more credit than Heidegger gives him. Dr. Schufreider is the Continental philosopher who knows everything about Heidegger and Dr. Sirridge is the Medievalist who knows Augustine. And so they are coming together and helping me work through that argument.
Do you have a favorite Honors class that you’ve taken?
Honors options are always beneficial in that the best part about them, I think, at least in the humanities, is that there’s a freedom when you work with a professor. They will tell me to read a book and we’ll discuss it afterwards. Being able to meet with and get to know professors is what’s made my experience at LSU so profound. The time they take—the one-on-ones, the discussions—it’s incredible. I’m doing the Honors option with LSU English Professor Joseph Kronick and he’s re-reading three or four books just to have discussions with me. I go into his office and there are all these books on Heidegger on his desk that he’s reading to just so he can talk with me about them. To have someone who is willing to do that is great. I am also participating in the Honors option with LSU Professor James Stoner, in the Department of Political Science, who I meet with weekly to discuss the differences between Plato and Aristotle. Each time I leave these conversations, I may have a handful of answers, but I’m always challenged with more questions. As far as an Honors course, the Honors 2000 seminar, “Why War,” was great. We talked about the issues of war, and while I am familiar with the moral and ethical topics of war through the philosophy department, discussing it through literature and current events was very engaging and interesting. Actually, when The Bengal Group evaluated my scholarship application and looked over my transcript, they said that course stood out to them. They were glad to see that LSU wasn’t just about football.
What advice would you give to future Ogden Honors students?
The Ogden Honors College gives you that opportunity to go beyond the classroom. A typical course offers you classroom time, homework, tests, and exams. Ogden Honors pushes discussion past that and asks, how can we go beyond the standard limit? You know when we look at sports or athletics around LSU, we would never challenge athletes for working too hard. We would never tell them to hold back. The College pushes that excellence, encouraging students to see what they can do and what they’re capable of. I would tell students that this is an opportunity to engage in a world-class education that people around the world don’t have access to. This is a privilege, so make the most of it. I don’t think people ideally want to declare academic bankruptcy and do this over again, but it takes a student understanding that school is a job. This is work. It’s more than just showing up to class—it’s applying yourself. But the rewards of that hard work are countless. In college, the more you put in, the more you get out. It’s about meeting professors, not being afraid to speak up in class, doing the work and reading ahead of time. You certainly need to enjoy your college experience, but you have to recognize that it takes work to excel.