The third time was the charm for Matthew Summers.
Summers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in May, but it wasn’t his first attempt at a degree.
He tried taking some community college classes at a younger point in his life, but certain factors forced him to stop. In 2008, he tried again, enrolling in a program at Perimeter College, but life happened and he was forced to pause his education again.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave him a push to further his education. Though he lived and worked in Washington D.C. at the time, he still had an apartment in Atlanta. His ties to the city and positive prior experiences with Perimeter College led to his choice to enroll with Georgia State.
“I had my own insurance business, so I knew I couldn’t go to school full-time,” said Summers, now 40. “With me traveling and trying to expand my business in the D.C. area, I knew I needed flexibility. I signed up, took advantage of the fact that the pandemic was going on and school was mostly online and kept it there.”
Summers enrolled in Georgia State’s online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice program, a 120-credit hour degree program open to all admitted students. With two concentrations – Crime and Justice or Legal Studies – students are able to pick a path that best suits their goals. For Summers, the program allowed him to chase a childhood dream.
“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was five or six years old,” Summers said. “I’ve always been fascinated with ‘People’s Court.’ I’ve probably seen every episode of ‘Judge Judy.’ I watch Court TV a lot. I’m just really interested in law itself.”
Program coursework is broken down into a criminal justice core, foundations of analysis, a concentration chosen by the student, an internship or capstone and electives. This pathway included a cybersecurity practicum for Summers, while he also completed courses including criminal courts, family violence and wrongful convictions – a topic he wants to involve himself after law school and becoming a criminal lawyer.
“Recently, I became really interested in the Innocence Project,” Summers said. “That project is to reintroduce DNA to see if those who are incarcerated should be incarcerated and helps free innocent victims from prison. That’s really my goal – I want to work with them.”
The diversity of program coursework exposes students to the various fields and experiences they can explore after their degree programs. Summers found another area of interest through victimology and family violence courses.
“Even though my goal is to work in the criminal field, I also have a desire to work in family law, too,” Summers said. “The statistics on family violence were staggering – I just finished that class, and it was very informative. The classes were great.”
It wasn’t always great, however. Summers, who enjoyed the “pro’ of flexibility, noted some initial challenges when he re-entered the classroom, but he was able to overcome them with help from faculty.
“It wasn’t an easy adjustment, especially when I first started,” Summers said. “I did feel out of touch with the professors, but they were great. Overall, they have been very responsive, very helpful, they have been adjusting as well.
Summers reviewed syllabi and crafted the best plan of action, working during lunches, after dinner or weekends to submit coursework while maintaining his busy schedule. He offered some advice to students debating an online degree.
“I recommend it,” Summers said. “I definitely recommend it, especially for nontraditional students – those that have to work, those that have families, those that are a little older. Stick to your schedule, make sure whatever schedule you have, you allow some room for error or emergency but be disciplined with your schedule and really reach out for your professors. You’ll get through it.”
With a new degree comes new opportunities. Summers is waiting on his LSAT results to determine where he will enroll for law school. While he plans to enter criminal law, he said he wouldn’t mind becoming a prosecutor either. No matter what he pursues, one thing is for sure – he is ready to bring change and impact lives.
“I’ve been doing insurance since I was 18 – I'm 40,” Summers said. “That’s all of my adult life. I have a good background in that, but really my goal is to spend the rest of my working life as an attorney… really just to focus on making a difference in the justice system.”