Chance taken: Tomak trumps doubts, earns degree

April 26, 2012

When Benjamin Tomak walked on to Indiana State University's campus in 2010, he did so with a certain amount of fear and self doubt.

On May 5, Tomak will cross the stage at Hulman Center and graduate. Beyond achieving his degree, Tomak found a future by defeating his doubts. He received a fellowship for a one year master's program in history at the University of Liverpool. After completing that degree, he will attend the University of Delaware, where he also received a fellowship to work on a master's and doctorate.

The man who once had trouble attending classes now wants to be a history professor.

"I want to be the kind of professor I've had here," Tomak said.

Tomak enrolled at ISU in 1998 after graduating from high school. Two years later, he dropped out. Then he dropped out of Indiana University and Ball State University, admitting that he didn't have a willingness to attend class.

"I always kind of regretted it, but I put it in the back of my mind," he said.

He went to work in the restaurant industry and worked his way up to a general manager position.

"I was making good money," he said. "I was in charge of the place, but I absolutely hated my life."

 

But he began to read again and, in reading, found his path. He delved into history - his major while at ISU - and soon spent his days off reading that subject.

 

"I thought ‘Once upon a time, you had a chance to do this,'" he said about studying history. While the idea of returning to college tempted him, his doubts raised their specters. "I was terrified I'd fail again."

But in 2010, with the support of his girlfriend, now fiancée, he decided to go for it. He also had a plan, one that had worked his first semester back in school at Ivy Tech Community College. He attended every class. He sat in the front row. He listened. Every day, he worked on his homework.

Instead of failing, he succeeded. He also discovered something else.

"I started loving it," he said.

Though he lived in Bloomington, Tomak decided to attend Indiana State because he had accumulated some college class credit from his previous stint. He also found help when he had questions.

"At that stage, I needed people in my corner," he said.

With his mantra of "Don't miss class," ringing in his head, he made it to every class, even driving through snow and ice from Bloomington.

He also found professors that encouraged him.

"Right away I noticed that Benjamin was absolutely determined to do something with his life," said Robert Hunter, history professor and Tomak's adviser. "He wanted to prove to himself that what happened earlier was not the real Benjamin Tomak."

Hunter described his role as helping Tomak figure out what he would need to do at ISU into order to gain admission into a highly-competitive graduate program, and also inspiring him in order to boost his confidence. Hunter told Tomak his own story of being a struggling, first-generation college student with limited financial means who dreamed of attending an Ivy League graduate school, and had made it into Harvard.

"Since study abroad had not only enhanced my competitiveness but also changed my life," Hunter said, "I suggested that he consider this."

 

However, Tomak at first laughed at the idea.

 

"I had about 100 reasons why that was impossible," he said. "I mean, who hasn't thought about it. Financially, it was impossible to do."Except that it wasn't. Hunter convinced Tomak to meet with Janis Halpern, director for academic programs abroad.

"I went to talk to her with absolutely no expectations and I walked out with hope that it might be possible," he said. "She's the kindest, most helpful woman, period."

Tomak received three scholarships, including the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State, to pay for his study abroad semester. The money allowed him not only to study at the University of Chester in England, but to also travel in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as to Paris and Rome. He also found a graduate program that interested him in nearby Liverpool.

"For Ben, I wanted to ‘make it happen' so he could go. For him it wasn't just an ‘adventure' to travel, but more a way to open doors to a future as a university professor," said Halpern.

"I was transformed by the whole experience," Tomak said. "I went over knowing that I wanted to be a professor and go to grad school. This made things less vague. I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to write about."

Tomak plans to study the Atlantic world in American and European contexts. In Liverpool, he will earn an interdisciplinary master's degree in the study of the global 18th century. That degree, he thinks, will be useful when he returns to the United States and studying history.

"To study 17th and 18th century topics in England and get that perspective is invaluable," Tomak said. "Early American history is British history. What I want to study doesn't go much past the American Revolution."

On his return to Terre Haute and ISU after studying abroad, an excited Tomak began meeting with Isaac Land, an associate professor of history. Land created a reading list of 17 books for Tomak. Once a week, the two would meet at Coffee Grounds and discuss the book they read for the week. During those months of meeting, they discussed books usually read by graduate students such as "The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History," "Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference" and "The Satanic Verses."

"I wanted to give him a broader repertoire and a sense of the diversity of scholarly approaches," Land said. "The list was tailored to his particular weaknesses with gender history, race and nationalism."

Tomak described Land's work as "above and beyond" and he said the reading list proved the key to help unlock graduate programs' doors.

"This is why most of us went into this profession," Land said. "It's not just about educating, it's to really build a scholar, to build a thinker."

Tomak applied to 12 graduate schools and was accepted to eight.

"I have been planning this for more than two years and now it is here," Tomak said about graduate school. "This is someone who never had a goal or had seen something through in his life."

The University of Delaware, one of his top picks, besides offering a fellowship, allowed him to defer for a year to complete his schooling at the University of Liverpool.

"It's like I'm a different person," Tomak said looking forward to graduation. "Coming back to ISU was absolutely the right decision to make...I had a level of support at ISU all along the way. I thought, ‘What if I fail again?' Now, I'm going to a world famous university across the ocean."

"If you've had setbacks, there's no barrier to recovery," Land said. "He's laid the ghosts of his past to rest."

Photos:http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-qBD3cPw/0/L/i-qBD3cPw-L.jpgBenjamin Tomak poses in front of Buckingham Palace in London. Courtesy Photo

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-3h4dwQ2/0/L/i-3h4dwQ2-L.jpgBenjamin Tomak visits the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Courtesy Photo

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-73P7bGx/0/L/i-73P7bGx-L.jpgBenjamin Tomak visited the coast of Wales while studying abroad in England. Courtesy photo

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu