Overcoming Obstacles: How a Growth Mindset has made all the difference for one Californian

Posted: January 14, 2015 in 4-H, Leadership Development, Monday Morning Message, Youth Development
by Allison Keaney

“He’ll never have more than a high school diploma, and his career will be limited to restaurant work.”

As I sat for the first time in my first doctoral seminar, these were the words I heard uttered from one of my classmates.

The group of 13 was looping the table, doing introductioimages (5)ns and meeting each other for the first time. As one might imagine, the experience of these individuals was quite accomplished, selfless and inspiring. I felt honored to be in their presence, and felt quite a little intimidated to be counted among them. But when Shawn talked about his background, I was humbled.

I really had not noticed the faded scars across his bald head, nor the careful and slightly odd way he cupped his hands to drink his cup of water, but as he spoke these things became clearer, as well Shawn’s story.

He was born with birth defects and brain damage, which caused seizures and learning disabilities. He was considered to have “mild retardation.” His parents were told not to expect much. All through elementary school, Shawn was in special Ed, grouped together with other special needs students and given the most rudimentary instruction. In high school, it wasn’t much different. He struggled with his subjects and his parents were told just not to expect too much, and to be resigned to the fact that he would probably be able to do janitorial or restaurant work, but not much more.  “They basically just gave me a diploma,” Shawn recalled, “Because they just couldn’t do much for me.”

But as Shawn continued to tell his story, it was clear that he was not going to accept the school’s label or his fast-food fate. His high school diploma, which he felt was given to him out of sympathy instead of educational mastery, was not going to be the end. “I wanted to learn,” he said. “So I went and learned everything I could.”

So he went to community college and took the most rudimentary classes to learn what he missed. Listening to him recall his path was thought provoking. In a world where we have come to expect nearly everything coming to us from a click of a mouse, this path is not familiar to most. He started with the simplest classes, the lowest level classes that the J.C. offered in math and English. He didn’t always pass those classes the first time. He re-took them anyway. This was not a two-year college for him as it might be for others. His path took much longer, but he learned and developed his skills slowly and persistently. His effort won the day. When he finally finished junior college and earned his Associate’s Degree, he went on to work on his bachelor’s then his master’s and now he sat across the table from me, ready to sit for his comprehensive exams, the last stage before the beginning of the dissertation process. “I just kept taking the next step,” he said. “I wanted to keep going up, always up.” And he did.

Not only did Shawn grown in his education, he grew professionally. Over time, he had become an accomplished corrections professional. His background and manner made him an understanding, empathetic yet firm guide to those he worked with. He said that incarcerated men had a hard time making excused with him. “You got it bad, man?” he would say. “Look at me! Now stop arguing for your limitations.”

Shawn’s path was far from the idea, where a young person starts high school, gets good grades, takes honors classes and passes AP exams. It was very different from the student who makes sure to have all the right community service experiences, civic engagement, clubs and sports. But he built his educational path brick by brick, course by course and still reached his destination. The path that takes most to earn their degrees is shorter than Shawn’s path. So what?

There are many paths to the same destination. All have merit. The right path is the right path for you. Shawn’s path was the right path for him. He didn’t worry about how is journey was different from other’s journeys. He simply just took his journey anyway. He didn’t let the bumps in the road stop him. He simply figured a way around them.

Now, go find your path!



About Allison

Allison Keaney received a B.A. in Liberal Studies with an education emphasis from the San Francisco State University and an MBA Allison Keaneywith an emphasis in Organizational Development from CalPoly San Luis Obispo. She worked in the fields of human resources, training and organizational development with global firms designing training tools, organizationaldevelopment solutions and leadership strategies.

In 2007, Allison joined 4-H with her children and became project leader and Assistant Community Club Leader.  In 2009 she joined Marin County 4-H as Program Representative supporting the county’s twelve general and specialty clubs, 4-H in the Classroom, 4-H Afterschool and Youth Science Summit. She is currently working on her PhD in Non-Profit Management and Leadership, emphasizing research in volunteer engagement.


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