Thursday, February 23, 2012

Opportunity is what really matters

Am I an outlier? I don’t necessarily see myself as exceptional or super successful. However, I have been the recipient of an extraordinarily high number of exceptional opportunities. Neither my cultural or familial heritage, nor my heredity, can be easily seen in who I have become at my current age of 30. My parents are hardworking blue collars, though my mother is now going back to school at the age of 49 to pursue a career as a medical technician. My grandparents are honest and caring rural residents who would be most proud to be described as good Christians. I am not ashamed, nor do I in any way make light of who my family is. They are exactly who they want to be and I love them dearly. However, it was my opportunities, on top of the inspiration they provided me to always try to be a good person and treat others fairly, that allowed me to become who I am today.

My first big opportunity came in the form of my high school Spanish teacher. A tiny, lively woman named Mary Lee Mitchell. Señora Mitchell did two things that sent me down my path with a skip. She showed me a love for the Spanish language unlike any other and she recommended me for a federally funded college-prep program called Upward Bound.

Upward Bound opened my eyes to a wider world than most kids born in Patrick County, Virginia are ever privileged enough to see. I met students from all over southwestern Virginia and together we learned so much more than how to get into college. We learned how to be successful in more fundamental ways. We learned to network. We had the opportunity to visit places like New Orleans, Orlando, Cleveland, and Columbus, to name a few. We were exposed to cultural events and visited many different universities up and down the eastern United States. Mostly, we learned the important lesson that we were good enough.

College started a little rough. Maybe I was overconfident. It took me a little while to find my place. Another amazing opportunity opened up to me when I met my husband, Brian. Brian and I were both students at Surry Community College in Dobson, NC. I was trying to get my grades back up from my false start. He was finishing an associates’ degree. When I met him, Bri was already accepted and due to start college at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC that fall. Lucky for me, he wasn’t opposed to my tagging along.

At Appalachian I found my home in the department of foreign languages and literatures. I connected with and learned from amazing colleagues, friends, and faculty. The supportive environment of the department was exactly what I needed to finish my undergraduate degree. In fact, I loved it there so much, I stayed on to complete a Master’s degree as well.

It was at that point I began again to search for what my next step would be. I knew I loved teaching introductory-level Spanish classes and that I was most happy at the university-level. Unfortunately, I was also aware that with only an MA, I stood little chance of earning tenure or a paycheck I could afford to live on. I was very unsure of what I wanted to do next. I knew I wasn’t interested in any PhD program in Spanish that I had ever heard of. I had only a passing interest in literature and linguistics and I knew that would not be enough to sustain me through a rigerous PhD program and a dissertation.

Fortunately, I heard about a degree over in the Reich college of education called an EdS, or Educational Specialist degree. Specializing in higher education, I found many interesting topics like assessment and accreditation, diversity in the classroom, and developmental education. I so enjoyed my EdS program, I couldn’t believe how fast it flew by.

Meanwhile, I still hadn’t managed to figure out where I was going next. In the summer before the last year of my EdS, I happened to hear about a program related both to assessment and foreign language study and managed to get involved. I was the only university-level instructor in an initiative that was clearly aimed at K-12 teachers. However, when the keynote speaker at the introduction conference gave her speech I happened to noticed that I recognized her name. Dr. Ali Moeller was on my very long list of contacts for potential PhD programs.

After her captivating keynote on assessment, I got an opportunity to speak with Dr. Moeller. She asked where I worked and when I told her, she asked if I knew a colleague of hers there, Dr. Beverly Moser. When I told her I used to be Dr. Moser's graduate assistant, she asked if I was “the one who builds the websites.” Apparently, my previous mentor had at some point been bragging about me. I was taken aback and honored.

This connection led me to my current home in Lincoln, Nebraska where I am thoroughly enjoying pursing a PhD in teacher education with Dr. Moeller. I feel like I am exactly where I should be and I am very happy and honored to be here. However, I recognize that I am here because of a long string of lucky opportunites. I am lucky to have been a student of Señora Mitchell’s. I am lucky to have been a participant in the Upward Bound program. I am lucky to have met my husband and followed him to Appalachian State. I am lucky to have been an assistant of Dr. Moser’s. I am lucky to now be studying with Dr. Moeller.

I am successful, not because I am a genius of some sort nor because my family had money or connections. I am here because I recognized and took advantage of every opportunity that was afforded me. I work hard because I appreciate where I am and I want to continue to take advantage of every opportunity I can. Mostly, I want to recognize these opportunities because others’ deserve them and I want to give back in any way that I can.

Am I an Outlier? I don’t know, but I believe Malcolm Gladwell is 100% right. Talent is important. Hard work is very important. But opportunity is also especially important.

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