Having worked together for 25 years as Manhattan Beach firefighters and being only 24 hours apart in age, it is no surprise that Matt Simkins and Ken Shuck, both 58, shared a graduation date.
“Our birthdays are just one day apart, and besides that we are close in our personalities,” said Simkins.
After decades of working in the public safety field, both men decided it was time to put their noses back into books. On May 25, they graduated with liberal arts degrees from Brandman University, part of Chapman University's system—36 years late, but with renewed appreciation for academics.
Shuck, a firefighter for 35 years, said both men had always wanted to continue their education.
“I had taken over 200 units, but it didn't add up to a formal degree. Most of the education is focused on fire science,” said Shuck. “While a formal degree isn't required, it's changing. More and more firefighters are getting formal degrees. For me, I wanted to set a good example for my 17-year-old son who is a junior at Western High School. My daughter is a lawyer and most of my family have gotten degrees. As a battalion chief, I also wanted to set a good example for other firefighters.”
Simkins said while he had always wanted to get a formal degree, he didn't realize how it would change his perspective.
“A liberal arts education has exposed me to different ways of thinking about things in a way that is outside of the normal focus of firefighter education courses. We serve an educated demographic here in Manhattan Beach. By us and others in the department upping the ante we have a much deeper way of relating to the public now,” Simkins said. “While most (firefighters) have a harder right-angle approach to their ways of thinking, classes such as 'Abnormal Psychology' have definitely soften that perspective for me in the way that has broadened my consideration. A lot of it we can apply directly to what we do as firefighters and paramedics. Some calls go beyond the clinical aspect, about 80-90 percent of what we do initially involves establishing a relationship.”
Shuck said much of what he learned he began to apply right-away.
“For example,” he said, “the ethics in business and also a class in cultural diversity – some of the suggestions from these courses helps us deal with situations that arise in the department as well as in the field when we are on calls. At 58-years old, a lot of what we learned simply confirmed and defined a lot of what we've experienced.
He said that taking online courses as opposed to commuting to a campus and taking classes at the same time as Shuck was beneficial to him.
“Ken was taking classes before I began, and we ended up taking some of the same classes,” Simkins said. “We were able to compare notes and he really helped me understand what was expected. It was a huge help to have him as a sounding board along with other guys that were involved in the program.”
Both Simkins and Shuck attribute a great deal of their success in graduating to their supportive families.
Shuck said his wife enjoyed chatting him up on the variety of topics that his courses covered.
“I took early California history. It was a lot of fun to learn about these things and we had wonderful family discussions about that and we both really enjoyed the music appreciation class.
Simkins would be beyond remiss if he didn't give his wife credit.
“She was 110-percent on board. She tolerated my angst. My wife had better computer skills than me, she helped point me in the right direction. She was my counselor, and my confidant. I probably gave her a few gray hairs throughout this. When I told her I plan to get my master's she gave me a side-glance for just a moment and then said that I should do it.”
And as it should be, graduation day at Chapman University on May 25 was a day of momentous celebration for both families.
Shuck said his family was beaming with pride when they watched him walk across the stage.
“My parents are in their 70s – I made them wait 40 years to see me graduate from college. It was a very special time. My family members are highly educated people and were all very supportive of me. It's a very unique experience at our age,” he said.
Simkins who has a older brother who has doctorate in education said it felt wonderful to see his family being so proud of his accomplishment.
“I've never seen my brother happier than at my graduation having completed my degree. Getting my college degree was unfinished business for me. My family has all gotten their degrees. So, it was a point of pride for me—a personal goal of mine for a long time, it just that other things in life had taken priority,” Simkins said.
Shuck said, “At one point in life I had to stop and make it happen intentionally. It wasn't easy. There were many nights I would come home after work and spend another four or five hours (doing college work).
Taking courses in English, history, music appreciation, psychology and religion has not only broadened their perspectives, but has also enriched their lives. Both men said at almost 58-years old, they are looking forward to the opportunities that having a degree will open up.
“Retirement is within sight, but most firefighters don't quit 'doing' when they retire. With my experience, knowledge and now with a formal education, more doors will be open for me. When I do retire, I'm looking at possibly working with Homeland Security,” said Shuck.
Simkins agrees that having a formal education will give him more options in post-retirement.
“Having a degree definitely made me more attractive to the schools that I'm looking into. I'm hoping to get more teaching opportunities for online fire technology courses,” he said. “I believe that online classes are the way of the future.”