Duon Martin never thought he'd go to college.

That's because in the small town of Salem where he grew up in southern New Jersey, no one went to college.

"We were never taught the things that really matter in life like education," Martin says.

According to Martin, kids like him saw only two options in life: if they were good enough at basketball or football, they might dream of becoming a professional athlete. Otherwise, the only other path they thought they had was dealing drugs.

Martin wanted something better for himself and for his high school sweetheart and wife, Nyesha. So he decided to take a different path – one that led out of town – to begin a new life.

A better life

After graduating from high school, Martin moved to Newport News, Va. to participate in an apprenticeship program at a shipyard that builds aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy. He entered as a pipefitter, and after completing the program, was promoted to nuclear quality inspector and then quality analyst.

"In high school, college wasn't in my plans. My family didn't have the money to pay for it, and I didn't think I needed college to get where I wanted to go," Martin says.

But after overhearing college grads at work discussing their salaries, he realized a degree could help him move up in his career, earn the respect he desired, and secure the lifestyle he wanted for his family.

At the time, Martin was working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week to make ends meet. "I was proud of how hard I was working, but I wanted to be home more with my family. I wanted to spend time with my three kids and watch them grow up."

With a new perspective on college education, Martin applied to Saint Leo University. He was accepted and started working toward a business degree at the university's Langley and Newport News Education Offices. He focused on a specialization that would move his career in a direction he had always wanted to go: project management.

Project management lessons in and out of the classroom

As he was working on his degree, Martin was able to gain valuable project management-related experience on the job.

For example, in the classroom, Martin learned about the traits of successful project managers – such as the ability to communicate effectively and to schedule and plan effectively.

At work, he practiced those skills every day.

In his current position as a nuclear quality analyst, Martin interacts with people at all levels of the company—from tradesmen to vendors to project managers—to ensure correct materials are ordered and the quality of materials delivered meets company standards. If materials don't measure up, Martin investigates, and his reports ultimately impact the company's future purchasing decisions and vendor relationships.

Throughout the project management coursework, Martin learned about managing people and scheduling, about collaboration and conflict resolution. He even overcame his fear of public speaking.

He also learned that everything in life is a project requiring these project management methods and skills.

"Project management can be anything. At my company, we build ships and submarines, and it takes seven years or more to do it. But raising kids is also a project. When you're a parent and work full-time, you have to find time for everything. Scheduling is big—you try not to miss important events, award ceremonies, or birthdays."

The value of a degree in the real world

In May 2014, Martin's proud wife, mother, uncle, and sister watched as he walked across the stage during commencement to receive his bachelor's degree in business administration with a specialization in project management.

Just a few short weeks later, he applied for a project management position as a construction supervisor with his current employer. During his interview, he used two projects from his classes, including his capstone course project, as examples of the type of work he can do with a collaborative team.

While the position required more experience than Martin had at the time, he saw the opportunity to interview – and being selected as one of three final candidates out of dozens of applicants – as a solid step in the right direction.

"I had been applying for jobs similar to this one for two years and they would turn me down right away without even interviewing me. So I'm excited that now that I have my degree, I'm getting that extra look. I know that the knowledge I have gained from the project management curriculum will make me successful in my company throughout my career."

Impacting future generations

Martin is especially optimistic about the future when he sees how far he has come in life.

"Although I lived the lifestyle that my family and friends did back home growing up, I always wanted something different. I always wanted to be successful and take care of my family and friends."

Martin is proud to be the first one in his family to get married, to buy a house, and to graduate from college. And he hopes that his success in earning a degree will not only shape his future career, but will inspire his 10-year-old daughter, Duonjahnae, and his five-year-old and one-year-old sons, Duon, Jr. and Nyron, to do the same.

"Seeing me walk across that stage during commencement was a really big moment for my family. I hope it changes the culture of education in my family.

The bachelor's degree program in business administration with a specialization in project management is also offered online through Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning. An online MBA in project management, which can be completed in as little as one year, is available, as well. Saint Leo is a Registered Education Provider with the Project Management Institute.

Images courtesy of Duon Martin

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5 Reasons To Choose Project Management As A Career

Saint Leo Offers Project Management Degrees Online