When Joshua Fischer was playing basketball for Bellarmine from 1990 to 1992, he had no idea how his life would change. Within a short period of time, there were four tragic deaths in his family, sending him into deep grief and depression and prompting him to leave college.
"I don’t think I have the words to explain how meaningful it is to graduate."
He might never have finished his degree. But Dr. John Gatton, professor emeritus of English, continued to encourage him—and in May 2021, Fischer received his bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies with an English minor in a private ceremony at Gatton’s home.
“I don’t think I have the words to explain how meaningful it is to graduate, especially during a pandemic,” Fischer said.
Fischer attributes much of his drive to complete his degree to Gatton, with whom he has remained friends since they met when Fischer was originally a student at Bellarmine. Fischer has even traveled with Gatton on research trips overseas.
“That's one of the great things about Bellarmine—the class size and the faculty. They're so approachable,” Fischer said. “I mean, I've got a front-row seat to a professor emeritus. I pick his brain constantly.”
Gatton said he was impressed by Fischer’s intellectual curiosity early on, as he tackled challenging works like Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Melville's Moby-Dick, the British Romantics and Eliot's The Waste Land, among others. “He complements his primary texts with related commentaries, criticism, podcasts, and the like,” Gatton said.
“Joshua and I share a variety of interests, and we have opened unfamiliar subjects to each other. He is inquisitive, analytical, creative, articulate, witty and companionable. He has lent his photographic skills to my work-in-progress on the London of Lord Byron, capturing many of the places associated with the writer and his circle. He helped me locate a number of these sites.”
Fischer said Gatton was “one of the bigger cheerleaders for getting my degree.” Gatton said he always hoped Fischer would finish the degree, although he declined to take any of the credit. “When he felt the time was right, he made that decision and followed through on it,” he said.
Fischer had taken several English classes at the University of Louisville over the years, but he didn’t want to take the three math classes that U of L required to finish a degree. At Bellarmine, the only math he needed was a statistics class, and a tutor, Shianne Deeter, helped him pass the class that had caused him so much anxiety.
Gatton said that he would encourage other students who want to complete a degree to talk to an admissions counselor and to the department chair for their former major, as Fischer did, to identify any unmet departmental requirements and missing general education courses. They should check the course catalog that was in force when the student was last at Bellarmine, as requirements may have changed.
“Dr. Jennifer Barker, then-chair of English, did this for Joshua, resulting in a two-course reduction,” Gatton said. “She provided additional valuable academic guidance.”
Returning students should also consider meeting with an advisor in the Career Development Center, Gatton added.
Fischer called Bellarmine a “soulful” place.
“I knew the reputation that Bellarmine had. I was playing basketball there. I didn't really have a sense, though, how soulful the school was,” he said. “My experience at U of L was great, but it didn't have that soulful quality to it. It's not just about the Catholic or Jesuit part. It's hard to put my finger on, honestly, but if I had to come up with words: soulful and enriching.”
Fischer is now considering MFA programs. He’s had some poetry published in journals and also writes fiction. The changes in Bellarmine over the years remind him of where he began.
“Everybody that I've ever encountered at Bellarmine represents the integrity and the kindness of the place. It's nice to see that the school has continued to progress and grow. But that wouldn't mean as much if the staff and the faculty didn't grow and represent the university as well as they have. I mean, it's exciting for me to see it grow, and now I can say I'm an alumnus. That's emotional.”
If you are interested in finishing a degree, explore Bellarmine's Degree Completion Program.