Education

Barry University grad overcame health problems, social stigma for a master’s degree

Joel Breneman, center, walks up a stairwell during a Barry University graduation at the James L. Knight Convention Center on Saturday, May 6, 2017. Breneman graduated from the School of Social Work, defying all odds after undergoing several heart surgeries during his time at Barry; two of them in this last semester.
Joel Breneman, center, walks up a stairwell during a Barry University graduation at the James L. Knight Convention Center on Saturday, May 6, 2017. Breneman graduated from the School of Social Work, defying all odds after undergoing several heart surgeries during his time at Barry; two of them in this last semester. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Joel Breneman spent 52 months in college.

After 13 straight semesters, he’s the proud holder of a master’s degree in social work from Barry University. The degree (and the perfect 4.0) weren’t easy for the 35-year-old.

Breneman battled health problems and societal stigma for his degree, which he hopes to use to work with people with substance abuse and mental health issues. But the pride he felt walking across the stage wearing his cap and gown made it all worth it, Breneman said.

“I had to jump through a lot of hoops,” he said. “But it was possible. I didn’t let anyone tell me I couldn’t.”

Fifteen years ago, a college degree didn’t seem like it was in the cards. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall, Breneman spent his 20th year in prison for possession of psychedelic mushrooms. He was released in 2005 and immediately had to register as a felon.

Breneman used this setback as motivation. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Florida Gulf Coast University, got a job at St. Matthews House and started on his master’s in social work from Barry.

“If I can help someone stop the unnecessary pain they go through, and show them there is a future and they can overcome this, then I will,” Breneman said. “I want to show people they are valued.”

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Joel Breneman with Bucky the Parrot, the Barry University Mascot, after a Barry University graduation at the James L. Knight Convention Center on Saturday, May 6, 2017. Breneman graduated from the School of Social Work, defying all odds after undergoing several heart surgeries during his time at Barry; two of them in this last semester. ROBERTO KOLTUN rkoltun@miamiherald.com

To juggle his full-time job and internship, Breneman took Saturday classes at Barry’s satellite campus in Fort Meyers for 28 months.

Around that time, Breneman’s congenital birth defect reared its head again. He had surgery at age 3 in Dallas, but doctors warned his parents the fix was only temporary.

Sure enough, he started feeling symptoms a little over 30 years later.

“Doctors told me ‘Your heart is basically screaming out right now, “Help me!’’’,” Breneman said. “I was like, ‘Oh, great.’”

His surgery was scheduled for a few months down the road, so all he had to do was take it easy. Months later, Breneman got his regular teeth cleaning at the dentist. In class the next day, he started to feel funny. His skin hurt and his hair hurt. He felt like he had the flu.

At the ER clinic, doctors told him he’d contracted an infection from the dental cleaning that put his already overworked heart in danger.

That postponed his surgery another month, time Breneman spent holed up in his apartment self-administrating antibiotics and watching his lectures on his laptop.

In August, Breneman finally had his four-hour surgery. He spent four days in the hospital and spent the rest of the month watching his lectures via webcam. The next month, he was sitting in his classroom once again. On May 6, he finished his degree with a perfect GPA.

“I’m proof that you can overcome these things and still have a life, goals, dreams and aspirations,” he said. “You’re not stuck with this label that gets put on you by a judge, by society or by yourself.”

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