For years, Suffolk University had been a backdrop in Army veteran and business management major Matthew Kelley’s life. “I’m originally from South Boston, and I was always down in this area,” says Kelley. “I worked for the sausage guy on Cambridge Street when I was really young. I worked at City Hall for six years in the Election Department.” But before he finally enrolled at Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School, Kelley had other responsibilities to fulfill.

A quick decision

He was attending college in Boston in 2007 when he decided to join the U.S. Army. His father, a Navy veteran, had previously encouraged him to enlist, but Kelley had resisted—until the day he found himself in the recruiting office. “It was that quick,” says Kelley. “I didn’t mull it over for a few months; one day I just walked down there and signed up.”

Assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Hood, Texas, Kelley focused on reconnaissance operations. He became proficient in the use of a long-range advanced scout surveillance system. The vehicle-mounted, multi-sensor system, which Kelley describes as looking “like a mini-fridge,” is used for range finding and target acquisition.

Deployed initially to Afghanistan, Kelley started his overseas service as a member of a scout platoon that worked as a personal security detachment for a sergeant major. “We flew with the sergeant major in Blackhawks to various places around the country—Bagram, Kandahar. I didn’t really see too much of the country up close.”

Kelley’s second deployment, as an infantry team leader in Iraq in 2009, was far different. “I was back to a line company,” he says. “What we did most was QRF—quick reaction force. If troops had enemy contact that they couldn’t handle themselves—if they were supply troops or explosive ordinance disposal who don’t have the capability of standing and fighting with the enemy—they’d push through and we would go to those coordinates.”

Matthew Kelley, Najaf, Iraq, 2009

Switching careers, staying in service

Upon leaving the Army in 2013 at the rank of sergeant, Kelley picked up his studies again, this time at Bunker Hill Community College. But the impulse to serve remained, and he began the application and testing process to become a Boston firefighter. He says that his military experience is very transferable. “The Fire Department’s a paramilitary organization; you follow rules, just like you do in the military. And if they tell you to go into a dangerous scenario, you just do it.”

Kelley joined the Boston Fire Academy in August 2014. For the next six months he trained on Moon Island in Quincy, and when he was done, he was assigned to a Boston Fire Department post on Beacon Hill. He found himself, again, right down the street from Suffolk.

Reflecting on his career in the Fire Department, Kelley says, “I love the job, but there are guys in the department who have become lawyers while working as firefighters.” Inspired by this kind of dual-career track, Kelley resolved to return to college to earn a business degree, asking himself, “Why can’t I do both?” He enrolled at Suffolk this fall.

Back to school

Choosing Suffolk University felt natural to Kelley. “Being in the Fire Department, this was starting to look like the place to go. I’m already in this community. I serve these people. Any time there’s an alarm, I come up here. I know the security guys outside, I’ve been inside the buildings. It almost felt like home before I even came here.”

As with the Fire Department, Kelley sees his military experience dovetailing with his education, noting ways in which his responsibilities as a serviceman can be brought to bear on his studies.

“The military was one of the things that propelled me to come back to school. Sometimes in the military they might come up to you and say: ‘You’re going to teach a class in water survival tomorrow.’ ‘But I don’t know anything about that.’ ‘Well, better start studying!’ So you’d force yourself to learn things, then come back and teach it, and learn more by teaching people. You can’t think of time in the military as time out from the world. We were getting experience there, too.”