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Matt Johnson

Once a Viking, Always a Viking

Math Finds a Place for Matt 

How an OCC alumnus discovered his love for Mathematics 

Matt Johnson’s college career began with a bet and not a lot of confidence. “My dad told me if I got better than an F in my first class, he’d pay for the next one,” says Johnson, a first-generation student from Brick, New Jersey. Johnson went on to win that bet, and then some – this year, Johnson graduated with his bachelors degree in mathematics from Kean University after restarting his education at Ocean County College. 

Johnson’s path through Ocean County College started tumultuously and with a shocking diagnosis. At the age of 17, Johnson discovered he had an inoperable brain tumor. “When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, it rocked my world,” says Johnson. “That existential fear just crept its way in.” 

After graduating from Brick Memorial High School, Johnson had no intention of going back to school. He struggled with course work and simply could not adapt to increasingly intensive courses in high school. “I just didn’t really know how to be a student,” says Johnson. Instead, he went straight into the workforce, working various jobs in construction, demolition, and a few stints in Walmart. However, his discontent with this work, coupled with the storm cloud of his diagnosis hanging over his head, convinced Johnson to forge a new path for himself. Despite his struggles with academics, Johnson enrolled at Ocean County College during the fall 2014 semester. 

A Rocky Start 

“I was 24 when I went back to school. I couldn’t even add fractions when I first started at OCC,” says Johnson. “I was not a math guy, and, in fact, I almost failed out.” Johnson struggled at first to find his path and tried pursuing an interest in physical therapy before enrolling in engineering classes. That’s where he met Theodore Gordon, a math instructor at Ocean County College, and everything started to click. 

“Professor Gordon just had a way about him,” says Johnson. “His class opens up your mind and teaches you how to think about life.” It was during this time that Johnson’s passion for math sprung forth. “Mathematics has a reputation for being austere and cold. It’s really like art,” says Johnson. According to Johnson, taking courses at OCC helped him better understand the world around him – and himself. “I really didn’t think I was talented,” says Johnson. “I learned at OCC that I was.” 

Learning to Learn 

As Johnson’s love for mathematics grew, so too did his capacity to learn. “Just because you can’t learn something immediately doesn’t mean you can’t succeed,” says Johnson. “I had to adapt how I learned. OCC considers that and really cares about it.” Johnson credits his professors and his classmates for helping his successful adaptation. “I took a lot of evening courses,” says Johnson. “They were just more supportive environments and diverse in life experiences. I really had world -class professors, too – Maryann Birdsall, Michael Pezzimenti, and Lynn Vazquez were particularly awesome.” 

Johnson’s experiences at OCC have shaped a future he couldn’t have imagined just ten years before. After graduating from Kean University, Johnson will attend Monmouth University to earn his master’s degree in computer science, and after that, a doctorate from Perdue. Johnson currently works in Supplemental Instruction at OCC, helping students who, much like himself, need assistance in adapting to a new educational environment. He is a McNair Scholar and is currently heavily involved in academic research. 

Johnson hopes his experiences can help others take the leap and challenge themselves, even if they have struggled in the past. “The things you love always have a place for you – even math,” says Johnson. “Math found its place for me. And if you never try, you never know what could be.” 

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