By Ron Wagner ’93, Contributing Writer
Mark Loftin’s family downplayed the importance of a college education, and for most of his working life, he provided supporting evidence for the idea of starting at the bottom rung of the banking industry as a teller and climbing up the ladder.
Shortly after the 2008 global financial meltdown, however, he found his bosses did not share the same ambivalence toward a bachelor’s degree. It was a nerve-wracking experience.
“After the economic crisis, banking was exceptionally scary to work in. Banks were closing,” Loftin said. “We went through an acquisition in 2010, and they bring in this team from this new bank. You had to go sit down in an office with all these scary people, kind of like that scene from Office Space. ‘Tell me what you do. Tell me why I should keep you.’ And these two guys in that meeting absolutely grilled me so hard about not having my degree, because I was the only person in our entire group that didn’t have that accomplishment.”
Loftin had, in fact, decided long before to earn his diploma, enrolling in Furman’s Undergraduate Evening Studies Program in 2004. However, steady promotions and a divorce put his pursuit on the backburner until somebody turned up the heat.
“So I told those guys, look, I was previously enrolled in school. How about I re-enroll? Does that sweeten the pot at all?” he said. “They said, look, we’ll be back in six weeks. You’d better be enrolled, and you’d better be able to prove it. I enrolled the next day and I haven’t stopped. “
“I’ll never forget the fear. Yeah, you’ve climbed the ladder at a place where you’ve proved yourself internally. However, if these people let you go, it’s going to be exceptionally hard to open doors elsewhere in spite of the accomplishments you’ve made.”
Loftin grew up in Spartanburg raised by a father justifiably proud of being able to start in the mailroom and work his way up to executive management is his company. That also perhaps made him overly optimistic a member of his son’s generation would be able to repeat the accomplishment.
“Going to college was not going to be something you were encouraged to do (in my family),” Loftin said. “My father is an abnormally bright person, and I think his experience (made him think) it’s got to be just like that today.“
Loftin demonstrated his father’s instilled work ethic and willingness to advance his career by consistently doing jobs others found distasteful.
“It’s a simple tactic. You find out the one thing that everybody doesn’t want to do in the group, and you take ownership of that … That always served me pretty well in lieu of a degree,” he said. “I’ve always argued to myself that I’ve accomplished a lot without it, and I think some people just sort of fit into that corporate mold easier than other people. For whatever reason, probably being raised the way I was, I just sort of got it.”
Along the way, he learned advanced computer skills that allowed him to modernize with the industry and earn considerable responsibility. Since beginning Furman, he has earned three promotions, to his current position as Data Steward within the Treasury and Balance Sheet Management division of TD Bank.
“Data governance is a big part of banking now, sort of reactionary regulation to the crisis of 2008. The bank has to prove to its regulators that we are managing all of our risk correctly, and many times the biggest risk to a modern bank is data. Everything is driven by data analysis,” Loftin said. “The old days of the prototypical banker are kind of over. Most of us are computer-programming nerds who know how to search through mountains of information.”
Still, as comfortable as he is in the workplace, Loftin admits to not always feeling like he fit in. Even before the sobering conversation that prompted him to re-enroll at Furman, the lack of a degree was always in the back of his mind.
“It was usually kind of weird for me. I’d be in the room and be the ONLY person who didn’t have my graduate degree, and the only person who didn’t finish college, so I always felt a little bit outmatched when I got in certain situations,” he said.
“I think going through Furman has given me the confidence I need to be able to stand up in these meetings and say what needs to be said, to hold my own.”
After initially starting out as a dual business administration and accounting major, Loftin scaled back to business administration, while taking advantage of computer classes offered as part of the information technology major. He also added a minor in Environmental Studies, with a focus on corporate sustainability. With so much hands-on experience with computers, however, it was natural to ask if Furman’s professors have been able to teach him anything he didn’t already know. Loftin answered with a story.
“(At Furman) we’re required to take intro to computer science. It is a very basic class, and the instinct is to say there’s absolutely nothing that this woman could teach me right now. But I think if you approach any class that way, they won’t be able to teach you,” he said. “The lady blew my socks off. I learned things I had no idea about, and it was something that I thought I was pretty versed in.”
That is merely one example of an experience for which Loftin has nothing but praise.
“I have very high recommendations for other people who are interested in Furman’s evening program.”
“It’s hard work. There are times where you think you’re going to go crazy because it seems like it’s not going to end … but you realize it’s an investment in your future,” he said. “The cool thing about Undergraduate Evening Studies at Furman is many classes are taught by working professionals. They’re not just professors, they’re practitioners. So they work their regular day job and then they come to school at night teach us. You can definitely glean information from their experiences.”
Despite the jarring nature of his educational wake-up call, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“Had I gone to college at 18, 19 years old, that would have been a catastrophe. I don’t think I would have done very well. I come in now and I’m equipped to be a professional student and take it seriously. Of course, I’m paying for it. That helps,” he said. “I’ll be the first one in my family to finish college … The school lives up to its reputation. It’s fantastic.”
Furman University recognized Loftin’s persistence and academic excellence by awarding him its highest evening student honor, the Frances W. Selby “Gig” Meredith Award, at the Academic Affairs Awards Banquet on March 27. He graduated cum laude.
UPDATE: Shortly after graduation Mark was promoted to Senior Manager of Data Governance & Data Management at TD Bank.