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From community college to Harvard

James Casey of Natick on the MassBay Community College Wellesley campus. He will attend Harvard in the fall.
James Casey of Natick on the MassBay Community College Wellesley campus. He will attend Harvard in the fall.(Nate Principato/MassBay Community College)

James Casey isn’t taking a traditional path to Harvard University.

The 24-year-old Natick resident graduated from vocational school, spent four years in the Marines, then earned an associate’s degree from MassBay Community College in Wellesley.

Now, he is one of just 12 transfer students out of 1,600 applicants who will be attending the elite Ivy League institution this fall.

“It’s surreal,’’ said Casey, who graduated from MassBay on May 23. “I don’t think it’s really going to set in until I move there. I’m really excited — it’s a lot to take in.’’

Casey said a professor convinced him to apply to Harvard even though it was a long shot. He had planned on attending Emerson College in the fall to study his passion — sports broadcasting.

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But when he received his acceptance letter from Harvard May 6, plans changed.

“It’s an opportunity I can’t pass up,’’ he said.

Harvard doesn’t have a sports communications program, so Casey will major in psychology. He will start in the fall as a second semester sophomore and will live on campus.

A first-generation college student, Casey studied automotive technology at Keefe Technical High School in Framingham. His father, Jim, has worked a variety of jobs, including landscaping and paving, while his mother, Barbara, is a logistics management specialist.

Not knowing his path after graduation, Casey enlisted in the Marines, an experience that changed his life.

“It instilled a work ethic and gave me an appreciation for the opportunities I have being born in the United States, in Massachusetts with two loving parents,’’ Casey said. “I have opportunities I wasn’t taking advantage of.’’

After four years, Casey decided to head home. It was too late in the year to apply to a four-year college, so in September 2017, he enrolled at MassBay. He quickly became involved at the school, writing basketball game recaps and serving as the public address announcer for home games.

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He also became an orientation leader and continued to study, making the Dean’s List each semester. He took four honors classes, is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society, and graduated with a 3.96 GPA.

He will become one of three MassBay students over the past decade who transferred to Harvard.

“All of us at MassBay are all extremely proud of James and we are excited that he’ll be attending Harvard,” said MassBay President David Podell. “Our students transfer to great four-year colleges all the time, but it’s not every day that one goes on to an Ivy League college. At MassBay, we have a motto — ‘Start Here, Go Anywhere’ – and James is living proof that it’s true.”

Less than 1 percent of students who applied to Harvard as a transfer student were accepted this year, according to Casey’s acceptance letter.

When Casey showed his parents the news on his laptop, they couldn’t believe their eyes. Casey said his mom almost threw the computer.

“We were so proud. There was excitement and tears,’’ Barbara Casey said. “We were stunned.’’

Barbara Casey said her son was a decent student in high school, but the idea of him attending a school like Harvard was “0 percent.’’

But after leaving the military, they said he was a changed man.

“He’s very driven,’’ his dad said. “He knew what he wanted and he’s accomplishing that.’’

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Casey said he doesn’t know what set him apart but he’s going to make the most of it.

“I’m really proud, honored, and grateful for this opportunity,’’ he said. “This is not lost on me, this is a big deal to be accepted and I’m extremely happy.”

Casey said he had a great interview and worked hard on his essay. He wrote about how he wasn’t proud of the person he was before he joined the Marine Corps and how the experience gave him an appreciation for the life he had.

He also thinks his status as a veteran helped his case.

According to a recent news release from Harvard about enrollment trends for the class of 2023, the university in recent years has increased efforts to recruit individuals who have served in the US military by working with the Defense Department, joining Service to School’s Vetlink program, and conducting outreach via community college centers for veterans.

According to the release, six veterans and 28 students who expressed an interest in ROTC are among the members of the Class of 2023.

Casey attributes much of his recent success to his experience in the Marines and at MassBay. He said he never would have applied to Harvard without the encouragement from his MassBay professor.

“There’s a stigma around community college that it’s only for people that can’t succeed elsewhere, and that’s simply not true,’’ he said. “Community college doesn’t limit you, it’s a great experience that anyone can take advantage of, and you can take those opportunities and turn it into the foundation to reach your goals.’’

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Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.