CORTLAND, N.Y. — People will go to great lengths to receive a college education in the United States, which boasts some of the best colleges and universities in the world. Nearly 1 million international students were enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
For Eric Prior, however, the journey did not involve traveling thousands of miles. It simply took time — 31 years, to be exact.
The Cortland man who began his college career in 1986 will walk the stage to receive his diploma during a commencement ceremony on Sat., May 13, at the Bessie L. Park Physical Education and Recreation Center Alumni Arena at SUNY Cortland.
Born and raised in Rochester, NY, Prior’s family moved to Bath, NY, when he was 15 years old, where he attended Haverling High School. One of his teachers encouraged him to pursue a career in physical education.
“She was a Cortland State alumni and said I should look at the school,” Prior said.
Prior’s path to a college degree was anything but conventional. After graduating high school in 1986, he entered into his freshman year at SUNY Cortland. While he maintained decent grades, he found that he wasn’t focusing as much as he should have on his schoolwork. He needed a change.
“You can’t live that kind of lifestyle and think you’re gonna be productive in college,” he said. “I told myself that I needed to challenge myself and get some self-discipline. My mother wasn’t too happy about it, but it was what I decided I was going to do.”
Prior joined the Army at the age of 19, completing basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and advanced individual training (AIT) at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
He never intended to stay in the armed forces for long, however. Two years later, Prior joined the National Guard unit in Hornell, New York, where he finished his military career. Despite his relatively short tenure, Prior says being in the Army was a positive, life-changing experience.
“I liked all the physical parts about being a soldier — running through the woods, setting up camps, playing war games. They always put you in realistic situations when you’re training. Knowing that people were depending on me to make sure they were safe — and I had to depend on the next man to watch my back — that kind of thing gives you a sense of a pride and a sense of duty.”
After growing weary of the military, Prior left the Army in 1989 and began taking classes at Tompkins Cortland Community College, where he would meet Prudy, his future wife. At some point during his time at community college, he realized he was still too fatigued from his military experience to focus on his schoolwork. He dropped out of college and began working again.
When he met Prudy, she already had a son. The couple would have four more children together, all boys.
While he and Prudy started a family in Cortland, Prior would maintain a number of different jobs. For three years he worked at Highgate Manor (now called Crown Center for Nursing & Rehabilitation). In the mid-1990s he landed a job working for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, where he remained for 15 years. In 2011, he got a job at Cortland Regional Medical Center.
In 2013, Prior’s youngest son left home to attend college at SUNY Cortland, which gave him an opportunity to try and finish his college education.
“With all the boys out of the house, I applied back to school and was told I could come back,” he said. “I fought for financial aid and was able to get some assistance. Now I’m at the end of the journey.”
He will receive his degree in sports studies, with a minor in wellness and sports. The curriculum taught him, among other things, how to deal with high school athletes who are often dealing with mental and emotional health issues, he said.
Since 2002, Prior has held a number of different football, basketball and track coaching positions for both Cortland and Groton high schools. While he has enjoyed his involvement in high school sports, Prior hopes his new degree will aid him in pursuit of his dream of coaching sports at the collegiate level.
But for right now, he’s just savoring the moment.
“It is the most overwhelming, wonderful feeling that I’ve had since marrying my wife and having our children,” he says of graduating college. “I walked out last Friday from Neubig Hall with my cap and gown and tassel. That really hit home, like, ‘You’ve done it. You’re almost there.’”