A Man of Style and Substance

 

August 19, 2014

When BMCC business major Matthew Toland first entertained the possibility of transferring to a senior college, he wondered if his resume would be more of a hindrance than a help. After graduating from high school, he’d worked as a hair stylist for several years before getting around to taking his first college course—not the kind of career path likely to impress a serious academic institution.

Or so he thought.

One institution that was definitely impressed was Yale University, where he will transfer this fall on a full tuition scholarship.

“Hair styling is a great field to be in, and great things came out of it for me,” says Toland, who grew up in California and began his career in Los Angeles before moving to New York five years ago. He excelled at his craft and built a stellar reputation, but eventually decided that he wanted a career that would offer greater intellectual fulfillment. That’s when he decided to go back to school, choosing BMCC as his avenue of re-entry.

“I wasn’t the best student in high school, and I wasn’t qualified to go to a four-year college when I graduated,” he admits. “But now I was in a different place—more mature, more responsible and more focused. I was ready.”

From the outset, Toland knew he’d picked the right school. “In my first year I had some great classroom experiences, thanks especially to my professors in art history, English and business,” he says.

The diversity of the student body was no less a factor in his academic development. “I loved being part of an international community,” he says. “Plus, there were wonderful opportunities to learn from my fellow students—informally and in study groups.”

A life-changing conversation

In his second year, Toland took an English course with adjunct professor Jane Clark, who made an offer that would put his life on an exciting new trajectory. Clark picks up the story:

“As the parent of two college-age children, I learned that I was good at helping students frame a profile of themselves as part of their application to college. As a college teacher, I felt a responsibility to make that ability available to my students.” As a matter of practice, Clark makes it known to her students that if they are serious about their studies and committed to working hard, she will help them navigate the college application process as well as write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.

“But the ball is in their court,” she says. “They have to seek me out.”

Toland took her up on the offer and scheduled an appointment—ostensibly to discuss his mid-term exam. But the conversation quickly turned to weightier matters. “He wanted to talk to me about going to a senior college after completing his studies at BMCC—and whether I thought that a realistic aspiration,” says Clark.

“It was one of those conversations that changes everything,” Toland says. “Professor Clark told me that if I truly wanted to set my sights in that direction, she would work with me. She had a profound affect on my life.”

Toland knew that he wanted to continue studying business, but was unsure about where to apply. “Narrowing down the list is a formidable task in itself,” says Clark.

“You have to sort through hundreds of colleges, asking yourself some tough questions: Where would I best fit in? Where would I have the best chance of thriving? Which colleges would most likely be engaged in the narrative I have to offer them?”

She explained to Toland that every college business department has its own distinctive philosophy and that it was essential that he familiarize himself with it before thinking about applying. “I didn’t know if he had the commitment to do the necessary due diligence, but within a remarkably short time he had thoroughly checked out every business and economics professor at NYU, Fordham and Columbia,” Clark says. “I thought, this guy is really motivated.”

More than grades alone

Toland’s GPA at BMCC was strong enough to put those schools at least within reach.

But, as he discovered, grades are only part of the equation: Most colleges look at an applicant’s academic record in the context of the whole person. “You’ve got to frame your profile in a way that really resonates with a college,” says Clark.

“I tell students that this will be the most exhausting process you’ve ever been through—but potentially the most rewarding.”

As Toland worked his way through the process, Clark helped him shape, revise and improve his profile. Eventually, a new thought took hold: “I’d put together a list of schools to apply to, including NYU and Fordham,” he says.

“But I also wanted to look at the Ivy League colleges. I knew it was a long shot, and that if I was going to apply to an Ivy, it had to be one that would value my life experience.”

Clark felt that Yale was worth a try. “Matthew was concerned that his background as a hair stylist would put him at a disadvantage—but what students often perceive as a negative in their backgrounds can be a plus in the eyes of many college admissions offices,” she says.

“The more diverse your experience, the more you have lived on your own and found your own way, the more interesting you may be to a college.” What Toland perceived as a weakness, Clark saw as a strength. She thought that Yale might see it that way as well.

Acing the interview

She was right, and Yale wrote to Toland to arrange an interview at the New Haven, CT, campus. “These interviews can be long, grueling and terrifying—but Matthew has an extraordinary ability to go into any situation with total confidence,” says Clark.

“Remember—this is someone who had also achieved great success in his first profession on the strength of his skill, professionalism, and ability to relate to people. What’s more, he did it in two of the most competitive markets in the nation—Los Angeles and New York.”

The interview went well, and Toland went home and waited. He received a letter of acceptance this past June, along with a scholarship that cover his full tuition costs.

“It’s a wonderful feeling, the best you can imagine,” Toland says. “But I don’t want to delude myself—I know how competitive Yale will be.”

While he is still interested in business, he’s keeping an open mind. “Right now, my goal is to be the best student I can be and to pursue all my interests—languages, history, literature—with total fervor.”

He credits Clark with being one of the most instrumental persons in his life, but she demurs: “This isn’t about me,” she says. “It’s about what Matthew brought into it.”

Looking ahead, Toland thinks he’d find a career in business—as an international consultant, perhaps—most fulfilling. But for the moment, he’s content to learn, explore and keep his options open.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, and I’m ok with that,” he says. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to.”

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Achieves stand-out success as a hair stylist and a student
  • Credits Professor Jane Clark with helping him reach an ambitious goal
  • "I wasn't the best student in high school but now I was in a different place"
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