A Journey Through Seven Colleges

Massimo Backus wants you to know he attended seven different colleges. To be clear, he’s not bragging or sharing this for the reasons you might assume.

In fact, it is actually more accurate to say he persevered through seven different colleges. His message to others is, “It’s ok to not have it all figured out in the beginning...the journey adds to who you become.”

Diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, Massimo describes his early education as a void. “I blocked a lot of it out,” he says. “I hid a sense of shame about my dyslexia and felt rudderless. I was always behind in school. My overwhelming belief was I could never contribute meaning or value in the classroom. My parents were very supportive, but I don’t think they fully understood how to help me. Despite enrollment at a private school and hired tutors, academic excellence was not an expectation for me.”

Massimo believes every student wants to excel at something, they just might not know their strengths.

For him, creative endeavors in school were a confidence-building outlet. However, as much as he enjoyed the arts, he struggled to find his path. “My high school theater teacher told me I was a ‘ball of misplaced energy,’” says Massimo. “He also told me I might really excel if I could be laser-focused on something. I still remember those words. He gave me motivation to find that ‘something.’”

Massimo admits to graduating from high school with some bitterness toward the educational system and a desire to prove wrong those who didn’t believe in his ability. So began his journey through seven colleges. “First, I attended Landmark College (a school exclusively for students with learning differences), then I transferred to the University of San Francisco for no reason except my friend went there. I dropped out midway through my sophomore year because I wasn’t doing it for myself.”

At this point, Massimo landed a gig in door-to-door sales. “Not everyone can handle that line of work, but I was naturally good at it,” he says. “I excelled at building relationships, teams, and sales. I was able to transfer these skills into commercial real estate work – building my confidence and an understanding of my strengths along the way. I still hadn’t found my ‘laser-focused something,’ but I gravitated toward the study of psychology.”

With renewed purpose, Massimo began taking classes at Seattle Central College, then North Seattle College, and eventually completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at Seattle University. Through all of this, however, he hid his dyslexia.

“I didn’t understand how to advocate for myself or my need for accommodations. I got my degree, but it was a struggle. I also found a champion there. My advisor, Dr. LaVoy, helped me believe in my dreams and urged me to pursue graduate work, which I would have previously thought improbable.”

Starting at UW, then transferring to Claremont Graduate University, Massimo pursued a master’s degree in organizational psychology. He also finally embraced his learning style and the differentiating strengths he brought to the classroom.

He sought assistance and ditched any residual shame about his dyslexia. He also finished at the top of his class.

In October, Massimo gave a presentation to Level 8 students at HRS. He explained his story as eager eighth graders raised their hands with lots of questions. “How did your parents respond when you got bad grades?” one student asked. Others were curious about his time at Nintendo and what it was like to be a door to door salesman. Massimo enjoys sharing his long journey with dyslexia and finding his passion. He hopes the Level 8 students can find similarities in his story and realize their strengths as they enter high school, college, careers, and whatever else their futures bring.

Today, Massimo runs a business in Leadership Coaching and High-Performance Team Development. “I love what I do, and am laser-focused on it. My passion is to equip people to recognize and build the whole person. I encourage them to draw strength from their own story. Each of us has a journey that adds to who we become. I can attest to that.”