By Elizabeth Rose
---- — Last academic semester, a friendly competition took place in the Augustonovich home over which college student would receive the highest GPA.
“We have a GPA contest every semester,” Bruce Augustonovich said with a laugh.
This is a familiar scenario for many families intent on spurring their children on to academic success through incentives like competitions. But in Merrimac’s Augustonovich family, it is not just the children who are pitted against each other.
Bruce Augustonovich, a 46-year-old father of five, is one of the competitors.
Last semester, he was also one of the winners, bringing home a perfect 4.0 GPA, like his 24-year-old daughter, Kayla. Father and daughter prevailed over Joseph, the 27-year-old who recently graduated from the same college.
“But it is usually Joey who beats the both of us,” Bruce Augustonovich said of his oldest son.
Augustonovich has worked construction and other jobs, but none has held as much hope and joy for him as his current position as a full-time student at Northern Essex Community College.
In some ways, Augustonovich was an unlikely candidate for academia, but his ambition, perseverance and determination, along with the resources of NECC, have produced an impressive record of academic and social success.
But the road was not an easy amble.
Born into an unhappy home in Haverhill with five siblings, Augustonovich wanted only to escape. He ran away from home for the first time at age 5.
“I was picked up by a policeman,” he said. “He took me out for ice cream and drove around until he found out where I lived because I wouldn’t tell him. I was involved in social services, but they worked more for the parents than the kids.
“I had a bad name starting with my brothers,” he said. “I was already disliked by the teachers. I never made it into high school, so I really surprised myself (at NECC).”
Three more episodes of running away left him homeless and on the streets at age 12. He only finished eighth grade but did educate himself informally by reading a stolen copy of an encyclopedia.
“I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother’s writing, which gave me the inspiration to write myself, even though I never met her,” he said.
Academics took a back seat for Augustonovich as he worked to support his family, which after divorce and remarriage swelled from three to five children.
His story took a dramatic turn when at the age of 37 he began having episodes of losing consciousness.
Augustonovich was working one night finishing a roofing job when he was overcome by sensations that he identified as anxiety.
“I thought I was having anxiety because I was high up there, but I was actually having a heart attack,” he said.
Augustonovich suffered several fainting episodes and was misdiagnosed several times before heart disease was confirmed. An incapacitating heart condition was remedied by the implantation of a pacemaker.
But Augustonovich did not trust his new equipment and had a long period of withdrawal into the safety of his bedroom following his surgery.
“I thought life was over at that point. I locked myself in my room,” he said. “I was afraid to go out anywhere. I thought whatever I did was going to destroy the pacemaker. So I lay around in my room for a couple of years. I gained 107 pounds. It was horrible.”
His children were ultimately his saving inspiration.
“But I noticed my kids doing the same thing,” he said. “None of them were working, they were sleeping all day. My oldest two had dropped out of school. If I don’t do something, the kids won’t ever do anything.”
As Augustonovich tells it, in the spring of 2010, he woke up one morning and enrolled at NECC.
“It was a one-night thing. I have to go do something,” he said. “Coming back challenged them to come back also. And they flourished, they really did. My oldest graduated last year.”
Since enrolling, Augustonovich has become a star academic, winning attention, support and accolades from faculty and administration. In July, Augustonovich was notified that he had been awarded two academic scholarships for this semester.
He received the President Emeritus Harold Bentley Memorial Scholarship for “excellence in oral communication,” which is given to only one student every semester.
He also received the NECC Honors Experience Scholarship, which recognizes students for their hard work and participation in the NECC Honors Experience Program. To be eligible for the scholarship, students must carry a high GPA and have successfully completed one honors course or project with plans for further honors course work.
Augustonovich wrote his memoirs of his younger years in order to be eligible for this award. He carries a current GPA of 3.4 and is working on an honors thesis about mummification.
Augustonovich has also taken personal advantage of his course work and has benefited from some courses.
“I lost 37 pounds last semester during a project for my behavior modification class, and with the support of my son Joseph, I am down 50 pounds to date.”
His academic adviser, Jane Gagliardi, a professor and the coordinator of the human services program, credits him for being a “learner.” In her reference for his academic scholarships, she wrote, “Mr. Augustonovich is an excellent example of the kind of resilience that can allow for success; he perseveres, meeting academic challenges and personal challenges, pursuing his goal of higher education.”
His major is human services. After graduating in the spring with his associate’s degree, he hopes to continue his studies at Lesley University in Cambridge. His current focus is in the area of child protection. He would eventually like to teach at the college level.
With his academic record, he is also automatically accepted into the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In the end, Augustonovich says it circles back to his children.
“My kids inspired me,” he said. “I have been so proud of them. Just by doing well, just by coming and challenging themselves.”