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Brandon Thomas’ long, winding road to earning a master’s degree at 50

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE / FEB. 24
                                Brandon Thomas of Greensburg, Pa., poses for a portrait outside of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, in Oakland, Pa. Thomas recently earned his master’s degree in social work from Pitt.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE / FEB. 24

    Brandon Thomas of Greensburg, Pa., poses for a portrait outside of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, in Oakland, Pa. Thomas recently earned his master’s degree in social work from Pitt.

PITTSBURGH >> Brandon Thomas will be the first one to tell you that his path to graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in December with a master’s in social work was anything but conventional.

The 50-year-old Greensburg, Pa., native spent years mired in a mental-health and substance-abuse haze before he received the help he needed to begin turning his life around. He enrolled in Pitt’s School of Social Work in 2016 at the age of 45 and earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work despite at times contemplating living in his car.

“You have to learn to be comfortable in a state of discomfort,” he said.

These days, Thomas works for Pitt’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit as an associate training coordinator. He travels the state teaching EMTs and other emergency personnel about the opioid epidemic and how to best help those suffering from opioid abuse. The work allows him financial security and stable housing.

“You don’t take things for granted,” Thomas said. “No one’s obligated to help you. But when you do receive help, you take that and work hard so you’re not in those positions anymore.”

Thomas is a self-­described Army brat who was born in Okinawa, Japan, and spent his childhood on various military bases around the world. His parents are from Pittsburgh, and he moved there to finish high school at Perry Traditional Academy. His first attempt at going to college didn’t go as planned, and he ended up moving to Wisconsin with a friend.

Things “just kept getting worse out there for me,” Thomas said. The combination of his mental-­health and substance-abuse struggles landed him in the hospital on multiple occasions, and he even tried to commit suicide. He returned to Pittsburgh 11 years ago with the help of his family. It was exactly what he needed, but it was also tough on his relationship with his two daughters, who are now 23 and 19 years old.

Prior to enrolling at Pitt, Thomas had been working at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as a patient care technician. Going back to school at his age “was intimidating for me,” but his classmates’ passion for helping others inspired him to push through his doubts. There was a technological learning curve Thomas had to contend with, but he dived into his studies and quickly made an impression on the faculty at the School of Social Work.

“He took the time to get to know people and to become known,” said Keith Caldwell, the school’s former associate dean for student success.

Caldwell, now director for continuity and impact in Pitt’s Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, was also Thomas’ academic adviser and one of his professors. He was struck by how Thomas was always “trying to get the most out of this experience.”

As an undergraduate Thomas somehow managed to juggle working at UPMC, his course load and the internships he took on, while also creating his own program designed to address the stigmas still associated with mental health and substance abuse. All that hard work culminated in Thomas being selected as the commencement speaker for the School of Social Work’s 2020 undergraduate commencement ceremony.

The road to success was grueling. Thomas’ inability to afford rent and pay his bills made finishing even his undergraduate degree daunting. Asking for help had never come easily for him. Thomas said it felt “embarrassing and shameful” that in his 40s his life was so unstable, and he felt a sense of guilt about receiving aid that many other Pitt students probably could have used.

But he worked with his teachers to figure out how to continue his studies and meet his basic needs. The plan included using the financial help he received from donors who funded grants for his education and survival.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” Thomas said. “It hasn’t always been smooth, but the support I had from Pitt, coming off from healing from mental health disorders and really trying to get my confidence up, was really instrumental.”

A favorite mantra, “You have to learn to be comfortable in a state of discomfort,” reflects Thomas’ hard-earned knowledge, and while he said he wouldn’t “buy a ticket to take that ride again,” everything he has been through is what has “allowed me to be where I am right now.”

Thomas doesn’t think his story is particularly special — which is precisely the problem.

“I’m not unique with my journey in mental health,” he said. “There are so many people on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh in similar or worse situations. There are so many people out there who need help but don’t have it or can’t ask for it.

“I want the public to know there are always bright minds struggling to get their education. There are many Brandons out there.”

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