Friday, October 17, 2014

Education, Second Chances, and Transformations

For some random reason today, I was reminded of a story that happened when I just started my current academic position.

I was a very eager assistant professor teaching thermodynamics to undergraduates. I had not yet been bathed in the richness of personal struggles that many students dragged with them into the classroom.

So after my first class, this kid - let's call him MJ - walked into my office. He delivered what seemed like a prepared two-minute talk on how he was going to focus, work hard, and turn things around that semester.

After he left, I looked up his past grades, and found that he was struggling with a GPA of less than 2.5, and an academic history that was littered with Cs and Ds. 

I did not think much about the incident, until the semester had picked up some steam. MJ showed up during office hours regularly. Although he was rusty in multiple areas, his dogged effort was palpable.

Over time, I got to know a little more about the social structure in which he had been surrounded - an ugly milieu that was riddled with gangs, drugs, and far worse - apathy.

What MJ lacked in mathematical ability, he tried to make up with logic, unconventional thinking, and tenacity.

He had that "born-again" zeal you can sometimes see in people who are given second chances, who have determined that this is it. It is now or never!

Thanks to the compounding effect of knowledge, he started making rapid progress. Within a month, I realized that he really had a good shot at turning this thing around, and actually found myself rooting for him. I really wanted it to end well for him.

He finished the course with a well-deserved A. I found out later that he had gotten As in most of his other classes that semester.

I watched him land a well-paying job a year later.

I saw him once more after that, when he came to recruit for "his" company, and caught up with him. He was doing well, and he had dramatically changed his family's trajectory.

The lesson: saving or helping one individual might not make a big difference to the world, but it does make a world of difference to that one individual.

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