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From plumbing to a Ph.D.

Soft spoken and reserved, Bruce James, a junior mathematics major, does not look like a typical plumber, but indeed took up the trade after high school. Even though he had always aspired to be a mathematician, the prospect of college was not realistic for him at the time.

When James was growing up, his family was on welfare and he faced the financial insecurity that came with incurring debt at a university. Because of troubles he had at school, James also did not feel he had support from the public school system. Add to that a religious family that believed the world would end in their lifetime, it is safe to say James did not feel encouraged to follow his dream.

Instead, under the guidance of his uncle, James entered the plumbing and construction industry. Even though he was a shy kid growing up, James learned to be outgoing at work. 

“In the construction industry you can’t stay in your shell,” he said, sipping his coffee. “After plumbing I was bartending and that’s pretty much like you’re on a stage.”

James made a decent living as a plumber, but during the 2008 recession James faced layoffs. When he was unable to return to his career, he switched to cooking and bartending.

It was during his bartending job that he totaled his car. Rather than buying a new vehicle with the settlement money, he decided to spend it on a semester of college — his first semester ever at the age of 33. Still without a car, James commuted to his community college, CCBC Essex via an hour-long bus ride. When coming to UMBC, he moved within walking distance.

“I didn’t want to be waiting for a bus for two hours and have to sit on the bus for an hour when I could be doing work,” James said.

In spite of commuting difficulties, James felt that being without a car was a positive thing for him.

“These things that are good, responsible things, also tend to be the things that hold you back or weigh you down,” James said.

In the midst of a hectic college career, James married his wife, who was obtaining her master’s degree at the time. She was working several jobs while going to school. During the wedding planning, she found out she would have to take a summer class and pay for it out of pocket.  

“We’re still waiting for the honeymoon,” James said with a little laugh.

The couple had managed to find a few days for a getaway, but a bad Airbnb rental made the trip less than ideal.

“It was like one of those Chevy Chase movies. We literally had wasps and birds,” James said.

The couple hopes they can take a second shot at a honeymoon after James finishes his undergraduate degree. James looks forward to continuing his education in a master’s program and eventually earning his Ph.D.

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