Brandon Thomas earned undergraduate and master's degrees in social work from...

Brandon Thomas earned undergraduate and master's degrees in social work from the University of Pittsburgh after years of personal strife. Credit: TNS/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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, Pennsylvania, native spent years mired in a mental health- and substance abuse-induced 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 having to contemplate living in his car due to seemingly insurmountable financial straits.

"You have to learn to be comfortable in a state of discomfort."

These days, Thomas works for Pitt's Program Evaluation and Research Unit as an associate training coordinator who travels the state teaching EMTs and other emergency personnel about the opioid epidemic and how to best help those suffering from opioid abuse. With his monetary and housing situations settled, he no longer has to worry about being unable to provide fundamental necessities for himself and his 9-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix Yager.

"You don't take things for granted," Thomas told the Post-Gazette. "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 here to finish high school at Perry Traditional Academy. His first attempt at going to college didn't go well for him, and he ended up moving out 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. Ih was exactly what he needed but 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 UPMC 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 dove into his studies and quickly made an impression on the School of Social Work's faculty.

"He took the time to get to know people and to become known," said Keith Caldwell, the School of Social Work's former associate dean for student success. "He would join office hours and really take an interest in getting to know the School of Social Work and the university at large."

Caldwell, now the director for continuity and impact in Pitt's Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, was also Thomas' academic adviser and a professor for one of his classes. He was struck by how Thomas was always challenging himself and "trying to get the most out of this experience."

During his undergraduate days, 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 him being chosen as the commencement speaker for the School of Social Work's 2020 undergraduate commencement ceremony.

His inability to pay rent and bills made even finishing his undergraduate degree anything but a given. Asking for help had never come easily for him, even when he needed it the most. He felt it was "embarrassing and shameful" to have his life so in flux into his 40s and experienced a sense of guilt over receiving the aid that plenty of other students on Pitt's campus probably also could use.

Even so, he eventually worked with his professors to sketch out a "battle plan" of how he could continue his studies while also having his basic needs met. He also received help from donors who funded grants that partially went toward his education and stabilizing his lifestyle.

He shouted out a few folks who helped him get through five years and two degrees, including Caldwell, School of Social Work Dean Elizabeth Farmer, associate professor Catherine Greeno, recruitment and enrollment manager Jessalynn Oliver, and former School of Social Work project manager Misha Zorich.

"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."

One of his favorite mantras is, "You have to learn to be comfortable in a state of discomfort." That's some hard-earned knowledge gained from both diving into a university education in his mid-40s and the demons that kept him from the life he always wanted for so long. He said he wouldn't "buy a ticket to take that ride again," but everything he has been through is what has "allowed me to be where I am right now."

While Caldwell wishes Thomas hadn't been forced to endure so many hardships to reach this point, he's also "incredibly impressed" with the resiliency his former student displayed while working toward two degrees.

"What he shows is that like any of us, we're not just the hardest points of our lives," Caldwell said. "Those are part of our experience, but we're not a one-dimensional person. There are always opportunities to take that and build upon it. There are a lot of ways Brandon can be an uplifting model for others."

In Thomas' mind, his story isn't particularly special — which is precisely the problem.

"I'm not unique in this situation," he said. "I'm not unique with my journey in mental health. 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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