Dr. Edward Potcanowicz as told to Mitchell Colvin
Trail Blazing a Family Legacy, Dr. Edward Potcanowicz
I have traveled so many different paths on my way to getting here, that looking back across my life at the age of 53, it’s just interesting. I come from Youngstown, Ohio, which is in Northeast Ohio. Youngstown is a former steel town where the majority of people spent their lives working in steel factories. I learned as I grew up, that what you did in my town was you graduated high school, you got a job at the factory, and you had babies. That’s what you did. When I was a little guy, I always wanted to be a Marine, and my father supported that. He never pushed me to be a Marine. It turned out I didn’t end up enlisting. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do when I was younger. It wasn’t until significantly later on in life that I figured out what I was really interested in and passionate about. My parents never really pushed me to become anything. They were sort of open and that they kind of let me figure it out. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I kind of bounced around. I did a couple different things, and I found out what fit. My parents said that I had to get an education and that I should go to college, but they hadn’t gone to college themselves, so they had no how-to manual on college and what comes after it.
For the people in my town, college wasn’t necessarily an option and so my parents didn’t know how to direct me or how to help me get there. I kind of figured it out on my own. No, they didn’t push me in any one direction. The thing they did push was the idea that you have to find some kind of employment because with employment, you get benefits, you get a retirement package, and you know then that you’re set up for life. That was their mindset, but that wasn’t enough for me to be happy.
When I first went to college I studied and trained in emergency medicine. I was interested in a health field, so I decided to try this one out. I became a paramedic, and worked in that field for a while. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, so I kept trying out new jobs. I worked in warehouses where I was a Teamster. I’ve done manual labor. I was in broadcasting in college because it was interesting, and I actually ended up using it. I worked as an on-air disk jockey, and I had my own morning program and my own overnight program. I used to work for an engineering firm. I worked all of these jobs, but none of them felt like it was the job I was supposed to be doing.
I’ve always been a runner. I’ve always been a physical person. I’ve always been somebody who tries to stay healthy. A friend of mine said “well you know you can get a degree in that,” and I said, a degree in what? He said, “well there is this thing called exercise science, have you heard about it?” I said, no I haven’t. So, when I went to Youngstown University, I spoke to Dr. Tony Whitney and Dr. Whitney explained to me how exercise science is this up and coming, burgeoning discipline that dealt with exactly the things that I’d like to do. And so, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in exercise science. And once I got into exercise science then it really clicked. That was it. This is what I was interested in, understanding how the body works and understanding how the body responds to the stress of physical activity.
So, when I finished my undergraduate degree at Youngstown State, I was still curious and hungry to learn more. At this moment in my life, I experienced the first person who discouraged me from becoming something. So when I was considering graduate school, a former professor of mine said to me “you know and not everybody has to go on to graduate school.” Thankfully, I’m stubborn and pig-headed enough that I didn’t listen to him. I had my mindset, and I want to graduate with what I wanted to do. It’s what I felt I needed to do because I was still curious. My questions had not been answered. I wanted to know more. I could never figure out why he said that to me, and I still can’t figure it out to this day. And so, I pursued a master’s degree in exercise physiology and still was curious and hungry, and I wanted to know more and go on to get a doctorate. Along the way, somehow, I ended up becoming a professor of exercise physiology. I felt that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do.
If you would go back in time and tell the 18-year-old me that he is going to be a college professor someday, he would laugh at you. He would laugh at you and probably flick his cigarette in your face. Because at 18 without a lot of direction, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I could be or necessarily what I wanted to be. If you told the 25-year-old me that he was going to be a college professor someday, he at that point would have laughed in your face.
Yet, today I am a professor of exercise physiology. I mean it’s an absolute blast that I get to teach people, and I get to be a part of their educational process. Forgive my French, but it is just damn cool. It’s fun. I mean part of the fun of being a college professor is that I live vicariously through my students and my students heating up my toes and my students make me work hard. They make me find new answers to the questions they have, and they keep me young. I would do this for the rest of my days, I would come into my office and I would meet with students and I would talk with students and I would teach students and I would interact with students every day for the rest of my days, even if I didn’t get paid.
You never know where life will take you but don’t take the back seat, get in the driver’s seat and steer it where you want to go.
This story originally appeared in Facing Our Futures Beyond High School, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.