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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Adversity as encouragement

You never know what drives a person to succeed.

I found this story on the cover of today’s Metro section very interesting for a number of reasons. I think it’s a solid profile of younger person quietly making a difference in this town. We need to hear of more of them.

But what really frosted me was this paragraph:

Getting to where she is today wasn't easy. Her mother had to borrow money to pay her fees at Padua Franciscan High. She was told by a dean at the Case Western Reserve University law school that her degree from Bowling Green State University wasn't prestigious enough to be considered for a scholarship, even though her transcript showed only one B in a sea of A's. Ruda would have the last laugh when she finished first in her law school class.

Huh? A degree and exceptional grades from one of our state’s fine public universities is somehow not prestigious enough for another of our state’s fine universities? Perhaps if she came from a well-to-do family with the proper Cleveland pedigree and the purchased Ivy League undergrad education to go with it she’d be more “appealing” to the admissions department at Case?

This seemingly small statement in this very interesting profile speaks to the fundamental problem with our system of education. To think that there are people in positions of power and influence in the system that can so easily dismiss those who have to work their way through school shows how little they understand the power of adversity to drive ambition. These deans and advisers and counselors are clueless as to what breeds success. Hint: It isn’t spoon-fed.

It doesn’t only happen in colleges, though I would surmise it is most prevalent at that level, where so few faculty members actually get to know their students let alone what drives them. A friend of mine painfully recalls an adviser, who was an academic dean, telling him, “Kiddo. You and Ohio University aren’t a match.” Fortunately, he stuck it out and didn’t listen to this bow-tied pompous professor.

There are also plenty of so-called high school guidance counselors with similarly misplaced good intentions. When my younger brother, Scott, was a senior at Berea High School, a grossly misinformed guidance counselor told my parents and my little brother that he was “not college material.” Hmm. How many successful people today have been told something similar?

My brother, who was not college material, made the Dean’s List two quarters his freshman year at OU and continued to excel academically throughout his four years. He worked his butt off, while being a member of the OU Marching 110 drum line and a fraternity. He even tutored my less-than-bright roommate through freshman algebra so she could graduate.

When I was at OU’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, I had a well-intentioned adviser who told me repeatedly that if I didn’t work at the student newspaper (the OU Post) I’d never get a job in journalism.

As I told him repeatedly, I needed to make money from my jobs in college in order to stay enrolled. I couldn’t afford to spend the time and work for slave wages at the Post because I would be forced to drop out for a quarter or two if I didn’t earn enough money. As it was, I worked in the admissions office opening the mail through my work-study grant, gave campus tours, babysat a local bar owner’s three boys (good preparation for my life) and eventually worked as a bartender.

It was difficult juggling the many jobs and the 16-18 credit hours every quarter, but it also was good preparation for juggling the many aspects of life. I had the good fortune to run into my adviser at an SPJ function in Detroit in 1992.

I went up to him and said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” He looked at me a little sheepishly and asked, “What did I say?”

“You told me that I’d never get a job in journalism if I didn’t work at the Post. Well, I’ve been a working journalist since two days after graduation.”

He just shrugged his shoulders and said he was glad. At the time, all I could think of was, “No thanks to you.” But I guess I can thank him because I set out to prove him wrong.

Some of us rise to the occasion when faced with adversity; others crumble. Here’s to hoping our youngsters find someone who can recognize what kind of “encouragement” they need to succeed.

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