UWL Graduate Feature

Neil Bollinger graduates today from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The 35-year-old has overcome drug and alcohol addiction to obtain an archaeology degree.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Neil Bollinger credits college with saving his life.

The 35-year-old from Kenosha, Wis., will graduate today from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in archaeology. A nontraditional student, Bollinger decided to go back to school after the construction industry tanked during the 2008 recession — and as a last ditch effort to escape the cycle of addiction.

When he graduated from high school almost two decades ago, Bollinger said, he walked the halls and swore to himself he would never set foot in a classroom again. He started doing construction when he was 17 and enjoyed the work.

Bollinger is a former heroin addict. He drank a lot and used cocaine when he was drinking. After the recession hit in 2008, he knew he needed to make a drastic change in his life, so he decided to go back to school thinking he wanted to study astrophysics.

“It felt like a matter of life and death,” he said. “I tried all the other angles. It was the last move I felt I had.”

He found out during his studies at UW-Rock County in Janesville that he didn’t like math as much as he would need to in order to complete a course of study. One of his advisers in the TRIO Program, which provides support to students, suggested he look into archaeology or anthropology.

“Archaeology seems like a good fit,” he said. “And I get to go outside with a shovel every now and then.”

Despite the change to an academic environment, Bollinger’s addictions followed him. He got himself clean from heroin for two months, which he said was a horrendous experience before his doctors used methadone to wean him off the drug.

But he started drinking again, which spiraled out of control during his first semester at UW-Rock County. He said he was drinking a box of wine a day, non-stop. He knew he wouldn’t be able to survive the next semester’s classes, so he decided to quit cold turkey and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

It was a challenge, he said. He went to meetings daily to begin with and surrounded himself not only with sober people but with people who were also trying to better themselves. Bollinger said he had to find balance in his life so that things wouldn’t spiral out of control again.

“I don’t know how I did it,” he said. “But I know what I didn’t like: It’s the anxiety of trying to control my life.”

Part of that balance was learning how to not demand too much from his life and to try his best and accept what comes. Bollinger was nominated to be the winter commencement speaker, something he said he wouldn’t have been excited about in the past.

“It didn’t matter if I got it, but that I tried,” he said. “That’s what matters. In the past, I wouldn’t have tried. I would have run and hid.”

Archaeology professor David Anderson first met Bollinger while teaching his introduction to archaeology course. Bollinger immediately stood out as a transfer student learning the ropes of school all over again, he said, but he also stood out for his passion and his questioning nature.

Bollinger always said he was interested in the institutions and cultures that humans build, and he asked deep and probing questions about course material after class, Anderson said. Bollinger just seemed like he wanted to get the most out of his return to school, Anderson said.

Bollinger started to come out of his shell during his field experience class, Anderson said. He connected with the other students and started sharing his experiences and the lessons he learned. He was open about his mistakes and wanted the other students to learn from them.

“I just held onto the hope of a better tomorrow,” Bollinger said. “I didn’t do anything special. I hoped my story could help those in similar situations.”

Bollinger said he is interested in studying marine archaeology after graduation particularly the history of marine shipping during World War II or on the Great Lakes. He has applied to a few graduate schools and is excited to be graduating — something he once thought he’d never accomplish.

“It is the completion of an actual goal in my life,” he said. “I know I can do these things now. I am a different person.”


Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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