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‘It’s never too late’: EMT, father of five delivers RCC student graduate address

Mandile Mpofu
‘It’s never too late’: EMT, father of five delivers RCC student graduate address
James Anderson, a 38-year-old father of five and EMT, gives the student graduation speech at Roxbury Community College’s 48th commencement. PHOTO: PHUONG TANG/RCC

James Anderson stood on a stage last Friday with his friends, family, classmates and other Roxbury Community College affiliates looking on. He was clad in a black graduation cap and gown, with stoles draped on his shoulders, and gold and blue chords and a medal adorning his regalia.

“Hello everyone. I’m a little nervous up here, trying not to cry,” he said. “I’ve got some tears building up. But it’s alright.”

For two years, Anderson had balanced his health career studies at RCC with his post as president of the school’s student government association and two full-time jobs: one as an EMT for Boston Emergency Medical Services and the other as a father to five children.

Last week, enveloped in a swirl of emotions, the 38-year-old stood before his colleagues as a graduate, the student graduation speaker and “as a testament to the transformative power of Roxbury Community College,” he said in his speech.

James Anderson (left) with Roxbury Community College interim president Jackie Jenkins-Scott and Steve Tompkins, chair of the RCC Board of Trustees and Sheriff of Suffolk County. PHOTO: Phuong Tang/RCC

Anderson was born and raised in Mattapan and graduated from West Roxbury High School with his eyes set on a career in the NFL. But soon after graduating, he had a baby girl. The life-change discouraged him from pursuing his original dream, so he pivoted and committed to caring for his daughter. He picked up various jobs including one at the Cheesecake Factory and another at the Westin Hotels & Resorts in the Seaport when it first opened.

In 2010, interested in the health industry, Anderson enrolled in a training program offered by Boston EMS and became a certified EMT. True to his nature of juggling multiple things simultaneously, he later joined the Massachusetts National Guard, where he served part-time for six years while still working full-time as an EMT.

Two decades after graduating high school, motivated to expand his health services knowledge and encouraged by his oldest daughter, Anderson considered continuing his education. He was hesitant at first, he admitted, but he finally took the plunge.

In fact, external inspiration swayed his decision, too. In 2022, while working his EMT job, Anderson saw a group of young Black graduates celebrating their commencement ceremony and “it struck a chord,” he told the audience, and soon after, he enrolled at RCC.

African American students have long faced barriers to graduating from college and have lagged behind their white and Asian American counterparts. Although the number of college degrees has increased in recent years, Black students still made up less than 14 percent of collegegoers in 2020, about the same as in 2011, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. White students made up the majority of college enrollments.

In 2021, 34% of Black adults and 28% of Hispanic adults aged 25 to 64 held college degrees, compared to half of white adults, according to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Despite these disparities, Black students in some institutions are making strides. An analysis of statistics from the U.S. Department of Education database found that Black students at Harvard University and Princeton University had higher six-year graduation rates than those of the overall student body.

James Anderson (front row, second from left) smiles during Roxbury Community College’s 48th commencement. PHOTO: PHUONG TANG/RCC

Where Anderson grew up, in the Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods, young Black men are sometimes told “that they aren’t good enough” or “that they will never amount to anything,” he told the Banner. He added that he wanted to play a role in changing the narrative Black men are fed.

“I believe that if you have the right people in your corner, if you have the willpower, then it can be done,” Anderson said.

This year, when he received an email from one of RCC’s deans encouraging students to apply to be the school’s commencement student graduation speaker, he went for it. In his speech, he told the audience that it was “never too late to believe, to strive…and to achieve.”

Anderson’s time at RCC was an enriching experience. It made higher education affordable, allowed him to take classes online while focusing on his family and offered him several leadership opportunities. In his two years at the institution, he said, he grew.

“RCC empowered me to start a journey I never thought possible. No one ever actively discouraged me; the biggest hurdle was my own self-doubt,” he said in his remarks. “How could I preach perseverance and self-belief to my children, if I lacked it myself?”

RCC’s 48th commencement was not just a momentous occasion for Anderson. His oldest daughter, now 18, is also celebrating her own milestone as she graduates from Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. She will soon begin pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice at Bunker Hill Community College.

For his part, Anderson is looking forward to advancing his career once again. He’s waiting for a decision from Northeastern University regarding an application for a degree in nursing.

The RCC graduate capped off his speech with a quote from former Celtics player Kevin Garnett: “Anything is possible.”