There is an empowering concept I share with the students in my life skills course – the idea that our challenges are not only able to be defeated, but that they often times make us better and provide the motivation to move forward. As young people transition into adulthood, the idea resonates.
I tell our students each year at Convocation, “When you get down, get up!” At High Point University, we want to plant seeds of greatness in the hearts and minds of our students. Those seeds contain the academic wisdom acquired from the classroom, but just as important are the seeds that reassure, comfort and propel our students forward even amidst conflict and struggles. Holistic education should arm students with both logic and spirit, knowledge and persistence, measured thinking and passionate resilience.
One way that we plant these seeds that grow into faithful courage and committed confidence is through faculty members who serve as living examples to our students that through adversity, you can reach new heights. Dr. Kelly Grillo, associate professor of education, has a story that inspires me. But more importantly, she has a story and a passion that demonstrates to her students it is possible to succeed because of your challenges, not despite them.
-Dr. Nido Qubein
Tell me about your early life. What was it like growing up?
I grew up in poverty to an illiterate mother. I lived in Philly on a little street called Hope St., where I like to say “There was little hope on that street.” I was born to parents who were married very young. My father was a high school dropout and enlisted in the military at 18. Our parents stayed together for 22 years, and three children later, when I was 12, my mother abandoned us.
Early on, I was given the classification of perceptual impairment, which makes symbol recognition very difficult. I could not read at all in the early years of my education. I was first served by remedial programs in reading, speech-language and mathematics. Then, I was put into a self-contained classroom for instruction. Eventually I overcame many of those challenges and learned to read.
In poverty and a lack of education grows a deep, deep illness. The social ills that plague the community I grew up in pains me. But by the grace of God I was able to succeed in that community. I have a strong advocate in my sister, who spent countless hours teaching me basic reading, and my father, who pushed me, believed in me and still fights with me in confidence. He told me every step of the way I am POWERFUL and perfectly flawed, enough to change education for children in poverty with disabilities who might also have family challenges. I am teaching others today because of their support.
Your story illustrates that through adversity you can find success. This is a powerful story that our students need to hear. Tell me specifically how you’ve been able to adapt and overcome.
Not only do I use technology and productivity tools to my advantage, but I believe that because I process materials differently by using my auditory processor and then consuming digital text with annotation, I process more deeply. Also, I know that as an individual, I am only as productive as my weaknesses will allow. Along those lines to survive in higher education where my disability could be to my dismay, I need to be a strong collaborator. Working with others who have strengths in the area of my weaknesses has been the key for me. My success has come from working hard, living with purpose and being mentored. I have always focused on being intentional, living a life of purpose, while championing a mission of excellence alongside exceptional individuals who have talents and skills that complement my strengths while silencing my weaknesses.
When someone overcomes such challenges, it often impacts their values. How has your journey informed your beliefs?
My challenges have impacted me by truly making me believe in the power of love. If we value others, and I mean value them deeply, we will be kind, patient, caring and allow them the time they need to grow and develop while we support them with the tools required for their growth, guide them gently with opportunities to meet success and ultimately love them by believing anything is possible. As an adult with a disability, I know my limitations, my abilities and my area of focus for growth. I am strong in who I am, what I want and make a plan to get it. Great mentors shape people to greatness by coaching them to recognize how to achieve and to surround themselves with others on the road to success. I mentor students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, to deeply reflect on who they are and make a plan for who they want to become.
You’ve obviously been able to overcome these challenges, but I believe you have a strengthened character and a passion and resolve to move forward and help others. Do you see it that way?
Once, I was told, “You are not college material,” when trying to make my school path plan during the middle years. That experience had a deep effect on me. Maybe that is even why I set out to earn a PhD; you can say that was the fuel. But every step of the way was very painful, lots of hours – double and triple the hours of a typical student. My goal was to teach in higher education where I could support the development of young pre-service teachers to set the next generation of persons of poverty and disabilities up for success by empowering them to learn efficiently and effectively with research proven tools. As a young person, confidence was always my largest barrier over my disability. Even now, at times, I am faced with moments of weakened confidence because I am a very rare statistic. At the undergraduate level we have less than 10 percent of college freshmen with a disability, the retention rates are much less as we progress to the master’s level. At the doctoral level, the numbers drop to a whopping 1 percent. I have had a personal friend who, in private, suggested that I never share my difference. I share this as a motivator to those around me to value people as they might actually impress and amaze you if you allow them.