James Normil had been working towards his college degree, in one way or another, for 12 years. Though he’s been a student at Bunker Hill Community College, Cambridge College and UMass-Boston in the last decade, he never earned a diploma.
James’s story is a familiar one among Match Beyond students: young people eager to pursue higher education too often stymied by the inflexibility and cost of traditional college. (The average Associate’s degree completion rate among low-income students is 13% nationally and 34% in Massachusetts.) For James, life – a wedding, a baby and a second job to meet the needs of his growing family – required a few stops and starts in his education, but traditional programs wouldn’t allow it. As a result, he accumulated more than $20,000 in student loan debt, with credits trapped in three different schools, but no diploma to show for it.
Enter Match Beyond. He enrolled in July 2014, earned his Associates degree by October 2015 and now works at Match Beyond as an employment coach. Bob Hill, a Match Beyond co-founder and senior coach (and Match High School history teacher for 12 years), worked with James from the beginning of his Match experience. Bob made sure James got a Wi-Fi hotspot so he could get online at home, and even played the role of bus driver for a while to ensure James could attend twice-weekly study sessions. “That little thing, a ride, wasn’t very little to me,” James says.
What follows is a conversation between James and Bob about college, Match Beyond and what they’ve learned from each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bob Hill: How’d you get here?
James Normil: When I heard about Match Beyond I’d just started working at College Bound Dorchester – I was about a month and a half into the job. They told me there was an opportunity to get a degree, and it was supposed to be more flexible and cheaper than traditional college. At first I was reluctant because my experience with college was not very good. Whenever I thought about school it just gave me anxiety. I was like, “’Man, I don’t even want to talk about that, because I owe like over $20,000 in loans, my credits are trapped in like three different schools…and I can’t pay them.’ You know what I mean? But then you said that I didn’t actually need any of my credits to start the program.
BH: [Interjects] Oh, yeah, you can jump right in.
JN: Yeah. Then I said, well what about accreditation?
BH: [Interjects] Fully accredited. No problem there!
JN: I asked, well how much is it? $5,000? Ok, well, the Pell Grant is about $5,000. All right, let’s give it a shot. And then, the first month, I didn’t really do much of anything.
BH: I was just thinking about that. I think we got you a WiFi to start off?
JN: Yeah, a WiFi hotspot, because I didn’t have Internet at home. But I didn’t really do much with it.
BH: I remember calling you a bunch of times – you had a phone issue or something. When I met you, I thought you were going to be good to go, and suddenly you were off the radar screen…
JN: Yeah, I didn’t really get the ball rolling until you and Mike [Mike Larsson – Match Beyond’s other co-founder and COO] came to meet with me. We sat down for like 45 minutes and did that assignment.
BH: Right. We just did one assignment: the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You had to make the instructions for how to make something and you wrote instructions for the best –
JN: The ultimate
BH: Right, the ultimate peanut butter sandwich. It was good. It got the ball rolling.
JN: And then we started meeting at Forest Hills [Match’s middle school campus] and that’s when I really got a routine going because you were picking me up. And then it became like a bus –
BH: And then it was a family affair.
JN: Pick up this person, that person, that person … then it was like, man, I’m just going to send you an Uber.
BH: That’s right.
JN: I felt like I was in a real rhythm. I was able to do a lot of work in a little period of time.
BH: And we had great time driving together...It was just a process of getting to know you, finding out what you’re interested in, and who you were as a person and what makes you tick and what’s important to you, you know? You like history, so that was something that we talked about. We both value family. And we’re both pretty spiritual, so that was good too. Once you started to get a little bit of a routine, there can be some momentum.
JN: To be honest, you were the difference between me completing this program and not. I mean, when you break bread with someone, that’s significant. And when you do it regularly, I think it forms a bond and that definitely worked for me.
You were another person not to let down. Of course I don’t want to let my kid down, my wife down – I don’t want to fail at another college thing – but you were another person in my corner. And also, the whole celebratory fashion – you would get mad excited.
BH: Oh, definitely. I love it, man.
JN: So excited.
BH: I’d get fired up. YEAAHHHHH!!!! Like that kind of excited.
JN: And it wasn’t just with me, it was with everyone. So that was great, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.
BH: Every time we connected, when we did work, I had fuel for the rest of the week.
JN: I can’t believe you went home so late all the time. Like midnight late!
BH: Yeah, my wife was like, heeyyy, what you are doing? But my kids knew – “Dad’s working with James tonight.” What’s next for you?
JN: Eventually I want to get my masters in counseling psychology from a seminary. When I went to Cambridge College I majored in psychology. I worked in the psych department at UMass-Boston for four years – I was the IT guy, but I got to work pretty closely with all the professors, on their materials and setting up their labs, so just always being around psychology, I’m fascinated by it. I still want to do it. I want to help people learn how to help themselves, so I’m not needed any more. You know? That’s what I want to do.
I want to finish here first, though. I did the Associates, now I want to do the Bachelors. I think it puts me in a better position to serve our students because I’ve been through the program myself.
BH: The sky is the limit. When people talk to me about you, I say I learned way more from you than you learned from me. When you talk to people now, in your current job [at Match Beyond], anyone can see that you really connect with students, learn a lot about them, really help them grow.
JN: Like you. I’m going to be like you.
BH: It’s mutual. The mutual admiration society.