College dropout to college professor
Updated: Feb 26, 2020
by Gabriele Eubanks
When Dr. Gordon MacKinnon, professor of psychology at Rochester University, was 17 years old, his high school counselor told him that college just wasn’t right for him.
So instead of going to college after high school, MacKinnon hoped to implement the printing skills taught to him by his grandfather and print newspapers for a living. Little did he know that his future would not be entirely predictable or easy.
If you met MacKinnon now, you’d never believe he once had no plans to pursue a higher education, or that the journey through his education would be as challenging as it was.
At age 18 he attended Macomb Community College for two semesters, achieved mediocre results and decided that he would abandon college altogether to become a technical illustrator for car companies.
It wasn’t until age 19, when he was invited to church by a friend, that he developed an interest in ministry and regained interest in obtaining a college education. At age 21, MacKinnon made the choice to prove his high school adviser wrong and enrolled at not only Michigan Christian College but also at Oakland University.
Second chance offers new choices
While at MCC, he was involved with many activities on campus, including the varsity basketball team and serving as student body president his junior year, but MacKinnon took advantage of this second chance and dedicated himself to his studies.
“He took meticulous notes,” said his wife Nancy Keller MacKinnon, who attended MCC at the same time. "He would tape the lectures to listen to later.”
MacKinnon said he thoroughly enjoyed his time at MCC, now RU, and said, “I learned a lot about leading while I was here,” but he admitted, “Living on campus was a mixture of nonsense, seriousness and playfulness.”
Upon experiencing college, he learned that he had a love for learning. “I saw every class as an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted,” he said.
Nancy claims that though he was older than most students, he was quite mischievous. “All the ladies loved him,” she said, and she believes he might have been involved when a teacher’s car was found parked in the lobby of the Campus Center building.
Starting family while pursuing advanced degrees
MacKinnon married his wife the spring break before they both graduated. He earned degrees in both psychology and ministry. MacKinnon had been employed as a youth pastor but when he decided to pursue his master's degree, the church asked him to resign. This added much stress to the household.
“I was working, he was working and had school, and our daughter had just turned 1 so we
relied a lot on his parents for childcare,” Nancy said.
But the real struggle came in his pursuit of a Ph.D. “I realized with all these people coming to me that I needed to know more," MacKinnon said, "but it wasn’t as simple as just going back to school."
“After his first rejection letter from Wayne State, he was discouraged,” his wife said. “He would go around saying, ‘I’m never going to be Dr. Gordon MacKinnon, just stupid Gordon Mackinnon.' ”
Nevertheless, his wife pushed him to continue. “She really was my biggest support and I don’t think I could’ve done it without her,” he said. So he continued on and was eventually accepted to the University of Detroit Mercy as well as offered a paid teacher’s assistant position to help him financially. “I really think there was a purpose for that,” Nancy said.
Once enrolled in the program, he found it to be challenging as well. Not only did he have extensive workloads, but his job as a teacher’s assistant became a burden as well. “There were days he’d have to hop out of bed at 4 a.m. to go to the library to research certain articles for the class to study,” Nancy said.
“Though it was hard, I learned most of my teaching skills and technique from that time and still implement what it taught me today,” MacKinnon said. He also included his young daughter, Ashley, in his studies. When Ashley was 3 years old, MacKinnon was practicing a psychoanalysis test on her and even though she was so young and not entirely attentive, he still took great seriousness in performing correctly.
MacKinnon values family very much and is a proud father. Ashley also attended RU and graduated in 2008. “He showed me the benefits of hard work,” she said. She also said he inspired her to work toward a master’s degree of her own.
Though MacKinnon cherished his time at RU as a student, when he was first asked to teach at the college, he said "no." Later, after receiving a better offer, he joined the institution full time. He served as chair of the psychology and behavioral sciences department from 2005-2019, and is now overseeing the university's efforts to add a master's degree in psychology.
MacKinnon has been a licensed psychologist since 1987 and was a psychologist at Havenwyck Adolescent Residential Treatment Center from 1996 to 2002. He meets with his patients weekly and has been the director of his own counseling clinic in Southfield, Michigan, since 2005.
Combining in-depth teaching with fun approach
MacKinnon takes his role as a teacher as seriously as he does his role as a counselor. His students say they thoroughly enjoy his interactive teaching and mixture of fun tangents that go along with his in-depth lectures of counseling and psychology.
Jacob Jenema, a junior majoring in psychology at RU, said “I really like Dr. MacKinnon. I love how he uses examples from patients he has had.” Even though MacKinnon has grown and matured since his time as a student, he never lost his mischievous nature and fun-loving attitude.
Hannah Saxinger, also a junior in psychology, said MacKinnon balances fun and games with useful and relevant information. Saxinger remembers that during a lecture on the psychology of zombie movies and their focus on the human crisis rather than monsters, MacKinnon "photoshopped himself and Dr. [Greg] Stevenson’s faces onto two of the main characters from ‘The Walking Dead’ and insisted that they were the stunt doubles.”
His personable attitude makes him a great mentor for students and creates a bond between him and his patients. “I knew from school that he would help people,” Nancy said, “He would stay up late at night talking for hours.”
His love for people has been with him throughout his life. “I just love hearing people’s stories and understanding them. I like hearing the line of decisions that brought them to wherever they are when they come to see me,” MacKinnon said.
Even when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 52 and given just five years to live, he carried on and continued to teach. “I didn’t tell a lot of people, just a few close friends,” he said. “I didn’t want it to define me.”
MacKinnon has been counting down those five years for the past 15 years and is cancer-free. When he passed the five-year time limit, he said “I just thought, well gotta do something I guess,” showing his strength of character and drive to continue helping others and teaching.
As a teacher, he strives for his students to learn and as a counselor, he listens to his patients to understand them. MacKinnon is the same in-and-out of the classroom and is equally devoted to his students as he is his patients.
MacKinnon’s struggles through his education show that it is not always easy and may seem impossible to finish, or even start. He demonstrates the benefits of perseverance and dedication even after failure and rejection.