From dropouts to doctorates

Matta brothers, of North Braddock, join older sibling as Ph.Ds

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Sibling rivalry can turn brothers into competitors. In the case of the Mattas, of North Braddock, it turned GEDs into Ph.D.s.

After seeing older brother Tom earn bachelor's and master's degrees in the psychology field, Jim and Dana Matta began to explore the option of further education.

Never mind that Dana had dropped out of General Braddock High School in 12th grade and Jim out of Woodland Hills, which incorporated General Braddock in a merger, as a sophomore.

With encouragement from Tom, both went back to get their general equivalency diplomas so they could begin pursuing higher education.

Seeing their older brother teach classes and work in his field motivated Dana and Jim. While Tom was working on his doctorate at the University of Southern California, Dana sat in on one of Tom's classes.

"I just remember watching his expression," Tom recalled. "He couldn't believe that I was doing this. My younger brothers would say 'I know this guy and he ain't that smart.'

"I think that kind of gave them a little bit of a spurt in terms of moving on. If I was capable of doing it, maybe they should push themselves a little harder."

Seeing Tom's success and realizing their likely career alternative was joining the family business, construction work with Matta Fencing, helped send Jim and Dana back to school.

"I worked construction for five years and I just could not see myself doing that for any length of time," said the youngest Matta, Jim, now 49.

He considered himself the proverbial fish out of water when he returned to school after a five-year layoff. But with hard work and strong family support, he kept his grade point averages consistently above 3.0.

The family kept telling the younger Mattas that dropping out of high school usually ends any hopes of returning to school and earning a degree.

"That's what I was going against, and I was not going to let that come true," said Dana, 51, who played linebacker for General Braddock and dropped out after realizing he probably was not going to get an athletic scholarship.

"I always thought, wished and hoped that I could get back in school. All this energy that was going into construction I wanted to put it toward something else."

Jim got into Edinboro University and made up for the lost years by earning bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology and clinical psychology in just 41/2 years.

Hopping a Greyhound bus, Dana rode for more than three days to California. The Mattas had relatives there, and Dana started classes at Golden West Community College, where he earned an associate's degree. He then got his bachelor's and master's at California State University, Fullerton.

In 1996, Tom became the first brother to get a doctorate, earning it at Southern Cal, which allowed him to keep in close contact with Dana. Tom's degree was in marriage and family therapy.

Eight years later, Dana and Jim got doctorates of their own. Dana finished at Loma Linda University near San Bernardino, Calif., and Jim finished at Duquesne.

Not bad for three brothers who grew up in a tough, blue-collar town -- two of whom didn't finish high school.

Tom, 54, now lives in Erie, where he is a full-time professor at Mercyhurst College. He and Dana are licensed family therapists. Jim is a licensed professional counselor.

At a National Council of Family Relations conference earlier this month, at the Hilton Pittsburgh hotel, an article Dana co-authored was chosen as the best in qualitative family research. The article was the most downloaded in the Family Processes publication.

Having three brothers in the same branch of psychology can lead to some interesting exchanges at family gatherings. While Tom said the brothers try to avoid shop talk, it's hard not to be analyzing others, even subconsciously.

"People are always asking if we are analyzing them," Jim said with a laugh. "Family members always warn people to be careful when they step into the room because they might be getting analyzed."

Dana also teaches. He is an adjunct professor at Seton Hill and Duquesne universities.

Jim is a senior researcher at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and hopes to get into teaching someday.

He credits his family with playing a tremendous role in his professional success -- especially his oldest brother.

"Tom was my mentor and he lit the torch," Jim said. "He made me realize this was an area that we are naturally gifted at. He thought I could do this and that really had my attention.

"He was yelling from the sideline as I was running down the field."


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