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HCC program provides second change to South Hadley man

SOUTH HADLEY - Joseph Carey doesn't blame anyone for his past missteps, but there is a long list of people he'd like to thank for launching him on a bright future.

A lot of those people were at Holyoke Community College (HCC) where the South Hadley resident graduated with a 3.7 grade point average on June 3. Next fall, he plans to continue his education as a liberal arts major at Amherst College.

The road to this point has been anything but straightforward.

Carey graduated from Holyoke Catholic High School in 1998 with a "D" average. Attitude, not aptitude, was the sticking point.

"I knew I was capable, but I didn't see the pay off in school," said Carey, 25. "So I aced the art and religion courses I liked and I skipped everything else. It was all A's and F's and not a lot in between."

Carey arrived at HCC that fall with a similar educational game plan. Some would call it academic cherry picking:

"I took all English and theatre classes that I loved my first year," he said. "Then I signed up for other classes like math and science but I didn't show up for them."

It didn't take long for that strategy to fail.

Carey spent the next few years working odd jobs, traveling a little, and questioning the world around him. He went to Ecuador with a church group, was born again as a Christian, worked at a residential school for troubled youth, got married, and even managed a bookstore. His experiences gave him a more measured perspective on life, but no clear direction.

"For all of the legacy of non-conformity, there was still an element of youthful irresponsibility," he said. "I am sure that some kids did things that were very meaningful because they had some big plan. For me, it wasn't exactly like that."

Carey's plans became more focused 19 months ago when he and his wife, Kristin, gave birth to their first child, Aniela. Again, he turned to HCC for help.

"I'd applied for 50 jobs, and didn't get any of them. It felt like I'd have to go to school if I was going to be able to support my daughter," he said.

Carey took advantage of HCC's "Fresh Start" option, which eliminates failing coursework from a student's transcripts if that student has been absent from HCC for at least three years.

And what about those science and math courses he so disdained the first time around?

"First and foremost, I think if you have the right motivation, you can get yourself interested in anything. Supporting my daughter means everything to me," he said. "And when I took those courses at HCC, I did get a lot out of them."

After years of dismissing the idea of college, Carey nursed a little anxiety about his return to campus. He credits his HCC teachers with making his "fresh start" work.

English teacher Karen Hicks convinced him to do honors work by insisting he could incorporate his own interests into the assignments he was given by his teachers. Biology teacher Brian Hagenbuch won him over by relating the science of living things to the nature writers that Carey loved to read: Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

And when Carey told Psychology Professor Mark Lange that he wanted to learn more about a subject they covered in class, Lange invited Carey to join other seekers in a non-credit colloquium.

Carey has toyed with the idea of following in Lange's footsteps, eventually teaching psychology at a community college. But he is careful not to peg himself. He will major in Liberal Arts or Interdisciplinary Studies at Amherst College. After that, who knows?

"I could see myself teaching. But I'd also like to live in a treehouse in Australia and write rock operas," he said. "What will be good for my daughter will come before what I think is fascinating. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll try to have it all."