April 25, 2023
Class of 2023: Fraser Trotter went back to college after dropping out years earlier. At VCU, he earned straight A’s and is headed to a top law school.
Trotter, a philosophy major, thought he’d missed his chance at a college degree but found success at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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Fraser Trotter’s first college experience did not go well. After graduating from Herndon High School in Northern Virginia, Trotter enrolled at West Virginia University in 2009 to study philosophy. But after three semesters marked by a lack of focus and substance abuse, he dropped out.
“I wasn’t mature enough to make the best out of that experience,” Trotter said. “My grades were terrible. In my last semester there, I remember them saying that they didn’t realize how somebody could slip through the cracks like that.”
Now, well over a decade later, Trotter is graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in philosophy and law school in his sights. And along his journey, he has served as something of a mentor to others who might be struggling in college.
“Probably five times, with five different people, I’ve been asked to go get coffee with them because they’re in a similar place to where I was,” Trotter said. “One thing I’ve been able to tell them is that the things you think you can’t come back from in life? Trust me, you can. You really can. And it might not seem that way, but I’m living proof of that fact.”
A partner for a new path
After dropping out of WVU, Trotter moved home, entered rehab and started working at Home Depot. He also met and began dating Trang Vu.
“This was one of the most difficult but also positive times for me. I’d been clean for 25 days and I was excited about it. I met Trang, who was working at a Starbucks in Lansdowne, and we just hit it off. She was the polar opposite of me. She’s from Vietnam, moved here when she was 13 and has wanted to be a doctor since she was like 9 years old,” Trotter said.
He credited Vu with keeping him on track. “There’s a general principle that you shouldn’t get into a relationship in the first year [after getting sober], but I was exceptionally lucky because Trang was totally on board and wouldn’t let me put her or anything else before my sobriety.”
In 2014, Vu began taking classes at VCU. The couple moved to Richmond, and Trotter took a job as a lumber associate at the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Short Pump.
“She was working through undergrad, and I started with an entry-level job, basically,” he said. “But pretty quickly, [I was promoted] and got a good job in commercial sales.”
Though Trotter wanted to go back to college and pursue a degree, he figured his grades at WVU would prevent him from getting accepted.
“I thought that I had just completely ruined any chance to go back to school,” he said. “Trang always was telling me that if I wanted to go back, I should just go back. In my head I was like, ‘Well, I might not be able to get in, but I’m making alright money’” at Lowe’s.
Toward the end of 2018, Trotter was offered a commercial sales account executive position. He knew if he took it, it would probably be the start of a permanent career — but also the end of his dream of returning to college and ultimately earning a law degree.
“I felt like I was at a fork in the road,” he said.
With Vu’s encouragement, Trotter declined the job. But he continued working at Lowe’s and started to take online classes at Reynolds Community College in spring 2019.
“I started just like getting all A’s,” he said. “Basically, it felt like the easiest thing in the world.”
Finding success at VCU
Vu graduated from VCU and began medical school in West Virginia. Trotter moved with her to Lewisburg and continued taking classes online. In 2021, he applied to VCU and was accepted, and moved back to Richmond. That summer, he started classes and continued to get straight A’s.
“I assumed, ‘OK, now I’m at VCU. I can’t expect to keep getting A’s all the time.’ But that happened. And it just kept happening!” Trotter said.
“What I realized was when you’re an adult and you come back, it’s way easier — at least it was for me — because you’re enjoying the classes you’re in, you’re happy to be there, and you have the maturity and discipline needed to succeed.”
At VCU, Trotter is majoring in philosophy with a minor in political science. He said he has been fascinated by the subject ever since taking a philosophy class at Herndon High School, and his studies would prepare him for a career in law.
“Philosophy is almost like exercising your brain,” he said. “Thinking about some of the biggest questions is the fun part. But it’s also specifically applicable to the law, too — critical thinking, formulating arguments and advocating on behalf of a position. That all really appeals to me.”
James Fritz, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said he feels “really lucky to have had Fraser as a student” and knows that other faculty members and VCU students feel the same.
“Fraser is an extremely bright student. He grasps complex ideas quickly and has a talent for putting his finger on pressing questions and problems for those ideas. He also has a genuine and infectious intellectual curiosity, which drives him to continue reflecting, discovering and making connections long past the point where other students would have given up,” Fritz said.
“On top of that, Fraser is one of the most disciplined and hardworking students I've ever taught. No matter where I set the bar for work in my courses, I always know that he'll meet it,” he said. “And, as if that weren't enough, Fraser is a delight to interact with. He's kind, upbeat and sociable, and he's mastered the difficult skill of criticizing ideas and expressing disagreement without being rude or dismissive.”
Philosophy tutoring and Velocity Comics
Outside of class, Trotter has a part-time job tutoring students taking VCU philosophy courses like Logic or Introduction to Ethics.
“It’s the most rewarding thing in the world when you have someone who has been coming in [for tutoring] because they’ve maybe been struggling with it, and then they begin to love it and pick it up as a major or second major because of how interesting it is,” he said.
It helps, he added, that VCU’s philosophy faculty are so dedicated to their students and make philosophy incredibly engaging. “They can get anybody to fall in love with philosophy,” he said.
Trotter also works part-time at Velocity Comics on Broad Street. When he was in rehab, Trotter reconnected with a high school friend who was into comics, and Trotter began reading them, too. When he and Vu first moved to Richmond, he started visiting Velocity on a regular basis.
“Almost every day after work I would be in there just like hanging out basically for like a couple hours, just getting way too many comics,” he said. “I had not read much at that point. I’d read like ‘Preacher’ and ‘The Boys’ and some other stuff, but I hadn’t taken a deep dive. But they just kind of walked me through everything. ‘OK, you like that? Here, read this next.’”
In summer 2021, he started working there, and now has the opportunity to help inspire a love of comics among others.
“This is the shop where I really got into comics and just consumed everything there was to read,” Trotter said. “It’s amazing to be able to point other people to comics that they’ll love.”
A future career in law
Last summer, Trotter started studying for the Law School Admission Test. When he took the LSAT, he scored in the top 1% of all test-takers.
“It was like an emotional moment,” he said. “It was like, all the work I’d done up to that point had actually come to fruition.”
Trotter has been applying to law schools and has been accepted at several top schools across the country.
Vu and Trotter were married in February, and Vu is heading to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital for her residency. Trotter hopes to attend law school in the Washington area.
At law school and in his future career, Trotter is especially interested in constitutional law, having taken three such classes at VCU taught by John Aughenbaugh, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Political Science.
“Fraser Trotter is an utter joy with whom to work as a professor. Not only is he bright, but Fraser does all the assigned reading, comes to class prepared to discuss and is an excellent writer. He is also curious and asks great, thought-provoking questions,” Aughenbaugh said. “But beyond that, he is just a good person. Willing to help other students [in and outside the classroom] and to offer a quick hello on the street. Fraser makes being a college professor such a rewarding experience, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to interact with him.”
Reflecting on his second experience with college, Trotter said VCU is where he found his path.
“It’s almost like a new lease on life in a sense for me. Like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, for the first time ever really,” he said. “When I got sober, it was like a new chapter in my life. … But all the way up until I decided to come back to school, I would say I was mostly directionless. I had forward momentum — I was professing and improving — but no direction.
“When I started going back to school, I was like, this is the right direction, full steam ahead” Trotter said. “And the experience or the journey, I’d say, has just been extremely beneficial.”
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