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DCCCD Alumnus Update: Matthew’s Journey From Garland, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska

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In January 2008, Matthew Detweiler enrolled at Richland College, just like any other DCCCD student. He chose Richland for one of the same reasons many DCCCD students choose their college – convenience. Richland was just three miles from where he worked full time as the lead fabricator and shop foreman of a manufacturing plant in Garland.

The schedule wasn’t easy. He worked long hours, going to classes after work and leaving late. “I would wake up to get ready for work between 4:30 and 5 a.m. daily… that way I could open the shop before business started at six. After getting off work, I went straight to Richland, and many nights didn’t finish class until 11, only to drive home, study what needed studying and go to sleep,” says Matthew.

Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy

Matthew was dedicated, and his work paid off. “My first semester I made straight As, the first time in my entire life. My second semester went almost as well,” says Matthew. During his second semester he was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, the two-year international honors society, but the moment was bittersweet – around the same time, he also lost his home to foreclosure.

“I missed my induction due to a court-ordered move-out date. In the spring of 2009 I attended my first regional and international conferences. During our regional conference, one of our students was finishing her term as the regional president. As her farewell speech was about to begin, our advisor and esteemed Richland professor Larry L. Polk, handed me a card and a bouquet of flowers and informed me that I would be saying a few words on behalf of our chapter,” says Matthew. “I don’t remember what I said, only that shortly thereafter he asked if I planned to run for any regional or international offices. I hadn’t thought much about it at that point.”

But the seed had been planted, so Matthew went for it. “Over summer I attended the Phi Theta Kappa Honors institute in Richmond, Virginia and began to meet people from all over the country. It was an incredible experience, to say the least,” says Matthew.

From left to right, former DCCCD chancellor Dr. Wright Lassiter Jr., former Cedar Valley student Gwendolyn Stallsworth, and former Richland College student Matthew Detweiler.
From left to right, former DCCCD chancellor Dr. Wright Lassiter Jr., former Cedar Valley student Gwendolyn Stallsworth and former Richland College student Matthew Detweiler.

“That fall, I was elected as the leadership chair for Richland’s Alpha Alpha Xi chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, and began planning my run for International President, a position elected from the student population after a lengthy campaign, marked by a final three-minute speech in front of thousands of students. Spring of 2010, I was selected to attend the National Legislative Summit that year; however, a snow storm postponed the original date and I was unable to attend the backup date,” says Matthew.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, Matthew didn’t give up. “The same spring, with the help of my campaign manager, Dustin Walsted of Cedar Valley College, as well as my chapter and advisor, I was elected as the International President of Phi Theta Kappa at our annual conference in Orlando, Florida. I was also selected as the student representative on Phi Theta Kappa’s Board of Directors and as a student representative to the DCCCD Board of Trustees. I spent much of the year traveling and giving speeches,” says Matthew. It was a lot for any student to handle, much less one already working a full-time job.

Things were about to change, though – particularly once he graduated from Richland. “I graduated from Richland with a 3.63 GPA in the spring of 2011,” says Matthew. “That same spring, I received notice that my application to Cornell University had been accepted.”

From a Manufacturing Plant in Garland to a Classroom in New York

“My time at Cornell was very different, and I focused almost exclusively on my academics, with some small campus jobs here and there. After my junior year at Cornell, I interned with the DCCCD Department of Governmental Affairs, under Justin Lonon, as well as worked my previous job.

“I graduated from Cornell in the spring of 2013 with a 3.6 GPA (cum laude) and a bachelor’s of science in communication, specializing in persuasion and social influence. I decided I wanted my Ph.D., so I applied to four of the best-ranked institutions in my field. I was accepted by the University of Michigan in the summer of 2013.”

University of Michigan didn’t work out. Matthew struggled in the program, and after discussing it with advisors, friends and family, he decided it wasn’t a good fit and dropped out. But it wasn’t the end for him.

Matthew called a friend and began doing contract work with BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, working on implementing a system called Positive Train Control. After a little time at that, he was offered a full-time position with the company that actually creates the system, Wabtec.

Matthew started work with Wabtec in August, and he’s been traveling between Texas and Alaska ever since. His current project consists primarily of supporting the implementation of Positive Train Control at the Alaska Railroad, and he’s in the process of writing a program to perform analytics on the vast amount of data the company receives daily.

A moose crosses the street in front of Matthew's vehicle in Alaska.
A moose crosses the street in front of Matthew’s vehicle in Alaska.

From Community College to Ivy League

When students graduate from or transfer out of DCCCD, it’s usually to other institutions and universities within Texas. It’s not necessarily everyday we hear about students going to places like Cornell, but Matthew insists he wasn’t the first – or last.

“It’s probably more common for DCCCD students to transition to top tier universities than you realize. I know at least one other student who went from Richland to Cornell the same year as I did, as well as two other students who went the year after (one Richland, one Brookhaven.) Further, even more of my friends went on to Columbia from various DCCCD schools. DCCCD prepares its students for success, and while it may sound simple, this is a major achievement for which you should be incredibly proud,” says Matthew.

Despite the long hours and crazy schedules, he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “As for what I would change: virtually nothing. I worked insanely hard to have the opportunities that I have been granted. And I am thankful everyday for that chance to work hard and move upward,” says Matthew.

Matthew’s Tips for DCCCD Students

  1. “Take every opportunity that presents itself when possible. I realize people have families, and moving for higher education may not be possible, but if you get into a great school nearby, take the chance.”
  2. “Wherever you set your personal goals, set it one notch higher and expect nothing less of yourself. I would rather fail going full bore than achieve a goal when I realize I should have done more.”
  3. “Take whatever job is presented to you. Learn everything you can, and find the gaps where you can learn to help the company. If you have to teach yourself to code (what I did after having to do the same thing day in and day out), do it. The more you know, and can produce tangible results, the more opportunities that will be presented. And it will continue to grow from there, until one day you’re shipped off to Alaska (just kidding… but a real enough example in my case). Be proud, but humble of your work, and hope that you can find the job where you feel like you can make a noticeable difference in the world. Good luck, and don’t forget to have fun.”
  4. “A major hurdle for most Americans is creating, and sustaining a budget by which to live. Check out Reddit’s personal finance page for some great tips. It should also be mentioned that a great program called You Need A Budget is free to students.”
  5. “Just because a school has an expensive price tag doesn’t mean they don’t give amazing financial aid. Cornell was cheaper for me to attend than any state school.”

More Information About DCCCD

  • Check out our various degree programs to find out what you can study at DCCCD.
  • The locations page of the DCCCD website can tell you which DCCCD campus is most convenient to you.
  • Worried about cost? Be sure to read over the financial aid pages of our website – you might have more options than you think.

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