The Boy No One Thought Would Go to College

Posted by Rachel Vogel-Quinn on Sep 12, 2017 11:57:33 AM

Matt Gogerty.jpg

Standing in front of a judge, facing 17 years in prison on drug charges, Matt Gogerty was asked what we wanted to do with his life. At an age when many kids are going off to college and choosing careers, the 18-year-old didn’t even have a high school diploma. He could only think of one reply to the judge’s question: “A used car salesman.”

The judge was not impressed. According to Matt, he said something along the lines of: “Here in my courtroom now, you’re telling me the most original thought that you can bring to mind about what you want to do with your life is a used car salesman?”

“I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the human spirit is really resilient.”

- Matt Gogerty


The Post-Secondary Education Retention Program that supported Matt throughout collegeis funded through United Way's Income priority area.

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In that moment, if only Matt had remembered the dream he had as a child, a dream that now seemed impossible: He had always wanted to be a writer.

The Kid with Dirty Clothes

Matt, now 25, is outgoing and friendly, with a tendency to speak the truth bluntly and soften it with a laugh. He admits past mistakes with disarming honesty, but can also analyze the social and cultural forces that influenced his life with the panache of a college professor. He tells his story as if it’s nothing special, but he’s aware it could bring some hope to others growing up in similar circumstances. “I don’t think I’m the shining light of how to overcome adversity,” he says. Yet adversity was certainly a theme of his childhood.

Matt grew up on Des Moines’ East Side in a single-parent household with his father and sister. He calls his childhood home “unstable.” Though his father did the best he could, money was often a problem.

“I was always the kid with the dirty clothes and the messed-up shoes. That was my life.”

At age 13, Matt got hooked on drugs. It wasn’t a shock.

“There wasn’t a lot of chance to not get hooked on drugs where I’m from,” says Matt. “The kids I hung out with in high school, 3 out of 5 of them are in prison right now for drugs. It didn’t feel abnormal at the time. It felt like something I should have been doing.”

Matt found the drugs to be a release—from stress at home and school, from the feeling he wasn’t good enough, that he didn’t belong. The money he made from dealing was a boon too.

“You kinda feel like you’ve overcome poverty. But it’s fleeting. It’s not real. It’s a farce.”

By age 14, he faced his first criminal charges for possession. At 17, he was already dropped out of high school and arrested on possession charges again. This time, however, he was facing a felony.

He didn’t expect to graduate high school—much less go to college. For some high school students, college seems an inevitability. For Matt, it was prison.

The Troubled Teen

By 2010, Matt had dropped out of high school. He was “in the thick of alcoholism and addiction,” as he describes it.

His life was haunted by bad choices—including the decision to rob some drug dealers. They came to his home—where he lived with his dad—and tried to burn the house down in retribution. Fortunately, that failed, but they did burn his dad’s motorcycle—his most prized possession of 25 years.

“My dad wouldn’t even look me in the eye anymore,” Matt says. “He was so tired of the person I was.”

A few weeks later, Matt was arrested again on drug charges. This time, no longer a juvenile, he faced up to 17 years in prison. Surprisingly, the arrest was something of a relief.

“It came to a head in such a way that jail felt like a better option than continuing the way I was living."

“I knew that if I went to jail, I would go to treatment," Matt says. "I would get an opportunity to get clean. Because I was falling apart.”

The judge he faced in that courtroom—who asked he what he wanted to do with his life—saw something in Matt that belied his “used car salesman” response. Maybe it was his eloquence—and a lexicon sharpened by the hundreds of books he read, often while skipping class. Plus, Matt admits, he had a good lawyer.

Whatever the reason, instead of getting sentenced to years in prison, Matt got two years of probation—with treatment. And a stipulation that he must earn his high school equivalency diploma (then called a GED).

Getting sober wasn’t easy. He stayed in two different halfway houses during that time.

“When people try to get sober, it’s not like all of a sudden you have this big epiphany or revelation and then you’re sober."

“You have to be to the point of desperation," says Matt. "I relapsed a bunch of times, and I struggled.”

But every time he relapsed, he went to the people helping with his recovery and admitted the problem. And they would give him direction, help him move to a better facility. In the end, he was able to stay sober.

The Boy Who Built Something New

Matt calls getting sober a “stepping stone” to everything that followed. He joined DMACC’s YouthBuild program, which provides academic instruction and paid training in construction while students work toward earning their high school equivalency diploma. The program is run out of the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families—which is funded in part by United Way of Central Iowa.

“Without YouthBuild, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Matt. They prepared him to take the GED test and helped him earn a DMACC degree in architectural millwork. More importantly, they helped him figure out a plan for his life.

In a conversation with the program director, Matt admitted that he had always wanted to be a writer. The director didn’t laugh at him—or tell him to be more realistic. Instead he asked: “What would it take to get you from YouthBuild to a journalism degree?”

That is the question that has guided Matt ever since, when faced with a difficult decision or a lack of motivation. “What am I doing to become a writer?”

iowa homeless youth center des moines.jpgTo help him answer that question, YouthBuild connected Matt with Iowa Homeless Youth Center’s Post-Secondary Education Retention Program—funded by United Way of Central Iowa. Matt was offered one of the first spots in the new program. The program supports vulnerable youth ages 18 to 25 as they work toward postsecondary degrees or certificates. PSERP offers case management for each student, financial incentives for attending classes and completing assignments, mentorship and tutoring, financial planning, and job search assistance.

After many conversations with his PSERP Education Advocate, Scott decided that a more traditional college education was best for him. 

He started taking night classes at DMACC while he worked full time as a carpenter during the day. After three years of hard work, he was ready for the next step: transferring to Drake University to major in journalism.

The Intimidated Student

Matt has found his time with PSERP to be invaluable.

“They put me in a position, through the resources they offered, to be a successful student,” says Matt. “To be able to grasp the concepts of how to study, how to prepare for a test, how to be ready on day one, sit in the front row, and ask questions. They have been pivotal in my development. I can’t speak more highly of them.”

Still, the transition from DMACC to Drake was a tough one. Matt says he underestimated how hard a university education was going to be.

In one of his first classes, the professor asked students to do a quick assignment in InDesign—a professional-level design software. Matt had never used the software before and was struggling to find his way around. The freshman sitting next to him, however, flew through the assignment with ease. Matt called the experience “ego-crushing.”

“I have felt comfortable in a jail cell with convicted murderers. But then I go to a college class and sit next to an unintimidating 18-year-old girl who is educated and well-prepared for college. And she intimidates me much more than those big burly men in prison ever intimidated me.”

Behind his classmates academically and dealing with some personal issues, Matt failed all of his classes at Drake in his first semester. But PSERP didn’t give up on him. His Education Advocate helped him write an appeal to Drake so that he could continue taking classes. From that point on, his GPA has steadily improved. He joined the college newspaper staff and ended up serving as sports editor. In December, Matt will graduate from Drake with degrees in Magazine Journalism and English Writing.

“Matt is an extremely driven young man,” says Naomi Ramsay,” his current PSERP Education Advocate.  “Matt not only gets great grades, but he is also an active member of his community. Throughout his time with PSERP, Matt has become self-sufficient and confident enough to advocate for himself as well as others in the community.”

The Man Who Gives Back

Harbor of Hope.jpgAlthough his time at DMACC and Drake was focused on improving himself and his future opportunities, there was another side of Matt’s life that was focused on helping others. For the past two years, Matt has served as program director at Harbor of Hope—the halfway house where he once stayed during his probation.

Harbor of Hope houses 16 men who have recently been released from prison. Matt and the other staff first focus on getting them the physical and mental health care they need.

“Our job is to play the buffer between them and the resources,” Matt explains. “We think that intimidation is a huge part of the problem. They don’t understand how to fill out paperwork at the doctor’s office. That leads to them not getting treated for diseases or mental health issues. They end up off their meds and committing crimes again.”

After health comes education, a road Matt knows well. Harbor of Hope works to get residents the next level of education they need—whether that be a high school equivalency diploma or a degree certificate.

“We want to be able to address education in the house and turn each guy into a functioning member of society—making him employable, making him everything that he can be.”

Matt knows what a daunting task it can be to overcome addiction and start taking steps toward an education or career. “You are forcing yourself into a situation that is going to make you feel inferior,” Matt explains.

It’s meaningful for Matt to help people struggling with the same things he did. He knows that he represents a success story that many like him dream of but never reach. Matt spends a lot of time thinking about his friends who are still in prison or struggling with poverty.

“There was nothing that set me apart from my friends,” Matt says, trying to find an explanation for the way things turned out. “We were cut from the same cloth; we had the same circumstances. I just ended up going down this road instead."

"I’m grateful for that because I should be sitting in prison right now too, if you look at it on paper."

His experience working at Harbor of Hope has led him to contemplate what went wrong in his young life—and how our community could prevent other kids from going down that same path. For one, he thinks that programs like YouthBuild and PSERP—and especially after-school programs for middle and high school kids—are crucial.

“Those programs save lives,” he says.

matt gogerty 2.jpgUnited Way of Central Iowa funds after-school programs for middle and high school students as part of our Education priority and through the Education Leadership Initiative (ELI).

By beating his addiction, getting a job, and pursuing education, Matt has already succeeded. But he will reach a big milestone he set for himself years ago when he walks across the stage at the Knapp Center in December. After he earns his degree, Matt may continue to law school. Or he may decide to stay in the nonprofit world—helping others like him succeed. And there’s always a job as a journalist—his lifelong goal. His dream would be to cover the Chicago Cubs.

As for his relationship with his dad—which hit a low point with the motorcycle fire—Matt served as the best man at his dad’s wedding in 2015. He says his dad is his best friend now.

Whatever Matt decides to do next, he has dozens of options before him as he pursues his career. And that’s something no one expected of him.

“There were definitely people in my past who alluded to the idea that kids like me don’t go to college,” Matt says. “I’ve been told that my whole life. But you never know what you are capable of until you try.”