Baltimore Firefighter’s Perseverance Pays Off

Michael Kelly finished his college career nine years after starting at University of Maryland Global Campus in a most untraditional way—by taking a class required of incoming freshmen. And, he did it as a first responder, a firefighter/paramedic on the front lines of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, working in one of Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods.

The physical demands and emotional strain experienced by those on the front lines of the coronavirus fight are well-publicized and well understood. For Kelly, 42, pulling double-duty at his part-time job as a beer vendor in the stands at Camden Yards would have provided a much-welcome respite.

But, since this year’s baseball season had been postponed indefinitely in April, that wasn’t meant to be. So, he muscled on.

Like a great many UMGC students, Kelly’s road to a degree was long and winding. He first enrolled in college in 1998 but dropped out before he’d completed his first semester to join the Coast Guard. After four years on active duty, he joined the reserves. Then, a position with the Baltimore City Fire Department opened up.

In the spring of 2011, with the encouragement of his family, he decided it was time to get a college degree.  He enrolled as an undergraduate student majoring in emergency management, and three years later, he was almost done, he said.

There was just one class yet to go—something called EMGT 486, “workplace learning,” and that became a real stumbling block. “I felt like the internship was for college-aged students, and not for a working professional like myself,” Kelly said.

He had kids. He had one full-time and two part-time jobs. And, at the time, the fire department didn’t emphasize the need for a college degree. “I didn’t see why I should leave my job to take an internship. After three attempts, I gave up.”

Kelly said he just kept putting it off . . .  and time passed. Until friends who were going back to school encouraged him to join them. “I just had this one class, and my kids were getting older, and I just needed to suck it up and finish it.”

He contacted UMGC—and got some bad news. The bachelor’s degree in emergency management no longer existed. The nearest thing was a homeland security major. He could do that, but it would require another 36 credits.

“I was just blown away,” said Kelly, who reflected with a sigh of self-irony on the price of procrastination. “You put something off, and this is what you get.”

That’s when UMGC’s Gerald St. Michel, an advanced transcript evaluator, got in touch with him.

“He was the perfect person to help me with my unusual situation,” Kelly said.

St. Michel looked over Kelly’s transcript as well as the training he had completed for the Coast Guard and found he had almost enough credits to graduate from UMGC with a general studies major.

But, there was one little hitch. Kelly had not taken a required course, “Program and Career Exploration,” or PACE 111, essentially an orientation course for freshmen.

“I didn’t want to let on to the other students that this was my last class,” he said.  He finally admitted to the professor what was happening, and she promised to make it “as painless as possible” for him.

He was finishing this last course when the coronavirus crisis hit and his work world changed with lightning speed. Kelly said that in addition to gloves, first responders on EMS or emergency medical runs now must wear N95 masks and goggles and, with some patients, gowns.

It would give him a lift to be back as a vendor at Orioles games. It was a big loss when that job disappeared. It’s not the money, Kelly said. It is the loss of camaraderie with his fellow vendors, not to mention being at the games and enjoying the crowd.

“It feels like something is missing . . . Everyone who is a baseball fan feels the same way,” he said.

Kelly may yet get his wish. On May 12, owners approved a plan to launch the 2020 Major League Baseball season, tentatively on July 4. Stay tuned.