Pellissippi State student conquers math phobia, pursues economics at Columbia U.

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Pellissippi State student Toby Goldstein, pictured in a vehicle in Afghanistan, where he supported the U.S. military’s interpretation program. Goldstein completed a degree at Pellissippi State in December and is continuing his education at Columbia University in New York City. He plans to pursue economics, with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies.

Toby J. Goldstein just earned a two-year associate’s degree from Pellissippi State Community College, and now he has been accepted to Columbia University in New York City. Founded in the 1700s, Columbia is not only one of the oldest universities in the country, but it also is consistently ranked among the top five institutions of higher learning.

The 31-year-old student will pursue a bachelor’s degree in economics at the Ivy League school—quite an accomplishment for someone who spent years avoiding college because he was afraid to take math.

Goldstein credits Pellissippi State for helping him overcome, and even embrace, the subject. It was through the community college, he says, that his longtime phobia for math—a discipline that figures prominently in such economics concepts as input and output, supply and demand, and inflation and recession—became an affinity.

In 2005, Goldstein, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, was released from the military. After his discharge, he returned to the Middle East and studied at an Arabic language institute in Egypt for eight months.

Language school completed, he then had to make a pivotal decision: should he return to the U.S. to pursue a college degree or accept a job overseas?

Not ready to face the specter of tackling college math, he opted for the latter.

“I honestly felt more comfortable in a wartime environment than I did trying to get through algebra again,” he said. “I had such a bad experience with it in high school that I put college off to take a job in the defense industry.”

Once back in Iraq, Goldstein worked a contract worker who supported the U.S. military’s interpretation program. He was responsible for large operations and several hundred employees assigned to the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command.

Ultimately, he lived in the Middle East 2004-2010. He married during his last months there, and the couple returned to the U.S. By that time, Goldstein had come to accept the need for a college education.

“I decided to move to Knoxville and go to Pellissippi State,” he said. When he began classes in January 2010, it was no surprise that entry testing pointed to the need for pre-college-level math.

“Before I came to Pellissippi State, I hated math,” Goldstein said. “I was really bad at it. At Pellissippi State, I started with the Carnegie program [computerized math exercises used in the developmental classroom] and eventually got over my fear of it.

“It was when I took Basic Calculus that I really developed a passion for mathematics—I really got into it. The math education I’ve received here has been amazing. I’m forever grateful to the Transitional Studies [pre-college-level] and math teachers. ”

Goldstein said he had initially planned to transfer from Pellissippi State to the University of Tennessee and pursue a degree in finance. He changed his mind once he took economics.

“That class gave me an idea of how intriguing, expansive and applicable economics can be,” Goldstein said. “We were assigned an individual country study, and I chose to do mine on Iraq.”

With his Arabic language background and his newfound aptitude for math, he said, “it began to occur to me that the economics of the Middle East could be a legitimate intellectual pursuit.” He decided to combine economics with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies.

About the same time, Goldstein discovered that Columbia University had admitted Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as transfers from community colleges.

“I changed gears immediately,” he said. “I worked with Ben Sugg, coordinator of Academic Student Support at Pellissippi State, to come up with a schedule that would help prepare me for Columbia, fulfill the requirements for an associate’s degree and transfer to UT if I didn’t get accepted to Columbia.”

Goldstein completed the requirements for an Associate of Science degree at Pellissippi State in December. He finished with a 4.0 grade point average and was a member of the college chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society of two-year colleges. He also served as vice president of the Entrepreneurs Club.

“This school has some of the best instructors I have ever been exposed to,” Goldstein said. “They have so much passion about what they are doing, it’s infectious, and they really challenge you to become the best you can be.”

Pellissippi State has more than 11,000 students at its four locations: the Pellissippi Campus, Blount County Campus, Division Street Campus and Magnolia Avenue Campus. For more information about Pellissippi State, call (865) 694-6400 or go to