Michael Barclay’s journey to a college degree didn’t come easy, so when he crossed the stage at American International College’s commencement ceremony recently, bachelor’s degree in hand, the experience tasted especially sweet.

Barclay joined 1,100 other AIC seniors receiving degrees Sunday, May 19 in the Mass Mutual Center.

Taste has been important to Barclay, 43, over the years. After graduating high school in 1988, the Palmer resident began a career in the restaurant industry, working a number of jobs while attending school off and on. After laboring in the business for nearly 20 years though, he decided it was time to get more serious about his career and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, the prestigious culinary school in Hyde Park, NY.

Upon completing his culinary degree and working in restaurants for a few more years, Barclay decided an even greater challenge—and also a career change—was in order. In 2007 he enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Bad luck kept him from seeing deployment, however, as he was injured during training before he could ship out. After being discharged, Barclay moved from Fort Bragg to Sturbridge, where he helped his friend and culinary school roommate Brian Treitman open B.T.’s Smokehouse, a highly regarded barbecue restaurant.

While Barclay enjoyed helping his friend, his longtime desire to pursue his true passion kept nagging at him. Barclay has known for years that being a teacher was his true calling, but personal tragedies took his focus from those goals. When Barclay was just 15, his father passed away, and then when he was 21, his brother passed away. These events understandably took a toll on the young Barclay, and he admittedly “got a little sidetracked.”

While he was able to accumulate a few college credits, he never finished the degree he needed to be a teacher. “I was lost for a while,” he said.

Finally, in 2011, a switch went on for Barclay, and he regained the focus he lost all those years ago. He was ready to make up for lost time, and a visit to Springfield and AIC gave him the boost he needed. Of his decision to choose AIC, Barclay said, “I checked out all the Springfield colleges, and there was a good feel at AIC—it just felt right.”

Part of what appealed to Barclay was AIC’s five-year program for aspiring teachers, a course of study that leads them to a master’s degree and teaching license on an accelerated timetable. For Barclay, this was just the way to make up for lost time. With the college credits he’d earned elsewhere, plus the AIC credits he earned by attending full time and in the summer, he’ll finish his master’s degree at this time next year. In fact, he’s not even taking time off to celebrate earning his bachelor’s. He started his master’s program the day after graduation.

Barclay’s happy about where he is now, but he acknowledges that he missed out by putting off his education. “I waited a little too long—I deprived myself for years,” he said..

He’s keen to offer advice for others who are thinking about putting off their degree like he did. “Do it now,” he said of finishing college. “Stop what you’re doing and put your foot forward. Because you’ll blink and five years will have gone by. Do it now.”