Faster than a speeding couplet

By

David Tate

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of student profiles that are part of our December 2015 commencement coverage.

Curtis Gokcen is a remarkable student.

But not necessarily because the 27-year-old Arizona State University online student is graduating this month with a 3.9 GPA. Or because the English major overcame drug addiction before setting his sights on a diploma.

These are fine accomplishments. But what sets Gokcen apart is the pace at which he earned his degree after transferring from a community college. Since enrolling in ASU’s online program in October 2014, he has completed 22 classes.

Yes, you read that right. In just over a year, Gokcen completed a course load most students tackle in two, sometimes three, years.

"I think part of it was just feeling like I had wasted a lot of time and that I needed to somehow make up time and go kind of as quickly as I could," Gokcen said.

So he did.

Dropping out, dealing with addiction

But before he could go to Arizona State University, he had to learn how to grow up.

After graduating from Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, in 2005, Gokcen enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh for the wrong reasons.

"I basically only went to school because that’s what you’re supposed to do after high school, you know? I had no idea what I wanted to study, what I was interested in, didn’t take school seriously at all," he said.

After a year and a half, he dropped out. A decade-long battle with addiction wasn't helping things.

Gokcen said he began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana in 2003, while still in high school. That evolved into an opiates dependency, including OxyContin and other prescription pills.

After leaving university he worked odd retail jobs before moving to Africa, where his father was working as an orthopedic surgeon for the nonprofit group Cure International. All the while, Gokcen said he was still feeding his drug habit.

It wasn’t until after Gokcen returned to Pennsylvania in 2012 that he came to terms with his addiction. He said it wasn't so much a matter of hitting rock bottom, but realizing that he had led a life of unfulfilled potential for a quarter-century.

"I just got to the point where I just got sick of it all and I realized that I just needed to change," Gokcen said. "It wasn’t like a single event; it was just kind of built up over time, and I just more or less decided that I just couldn’t live like that anymore ... you know, the daily routine of kind of going through withdrawal if you don’t use and just, the day-in and day-out worrying about whether you’re going to wake up and feel awful."

With the advice and support of his parents, who returned to the United States in 2013, Gokcen checked himself into rehab in Southern California. Two months later, he began taking classes at Crafton Hills Community College in Yucaipa, California, where he excelled. That led him to pursue his education full-time (though for Gokcen, the term seems a bit of an understatement) at Arizona State University, thanks to the institution's robust online course offerings.

"I read from a lot of different sources that ASU is one of the top online programs, specifically for English," Gokcen said. "First of all, part of the problem that I had at community college was feeling that I was like 10 years older than everyone and a little out of place going to classes and stuff. I’ve liked not having to deal with that, I guess, in the online classes, but also it was just easier for me to stay focused once I got a little motivated."

Motivated to succeed

The easy assumption to make is that Gokcen, in completing the 68 units required for his English degree in 14 months, had traded a negative addiction for a positive one. But he bristles at the suggestion.

"I didn’t have a job . ... Kind of how we looked at it, I was putting in [the] similar kind of hours if you look into the workweek," Gokcen said. 

Every day of the week would be dedicated to his education. During the weekdays Gokcen would wake up at 8:30 a.m., have a cup of coffee and focus on coursework from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On the weekends, he would work for three to four hours on any essays or projects before starting all over again on Monday.

"After the first couple of months I had to petition to be allowed to take over 12 credits," Gokcen said. "But I always knew, and my family has always told me that I’d had the ability to pull something like this off. For me, it was more the motivation and self-control. I just got really motivated — I think it’s just as simple as that."

Now, Gokcen is the proud owner of a bachelor's degree in English, even though he can't quite believe it.

"I guess it’s a little surreal, because if you had asked me two years ago I probably would have said I’m never going to finish college," Gokcen said. "So once my grades are finally calculated and I actually get the piece of paper it’ll kind of settle in a little more. ... But I definitely feel a lot of relief, just to be done, but also, you know, a sense of accomplishment and pride. Just overall really happy that I was able to do what I was able to do. ASU has really been helpful in making this happen."