By Linda Kor
A Winslow man has become a symbol of the strength and determination needed to overcome the challenges that obtaining a higher education while living in a rural area can present.
Shawn Lee works as a program manager at Winslow Guidance Associates and after a long day at work, he sits down at his computer and attends college online at Rio Salado College. His schedule means long hours and hard work, but it’s not something Lee considers a hardship,
“When you’re driven to do something with commitments behind it, it’s not a hindrance,” stated Lee.
Although Lee has a long road ahead of him, it’s the road that he left behind that keeps him moving forward. Originally from Steamboat, a small community on the Navajo Nation, Lee attended college for a period of time after high school, but the long drive to the campus and an opportunity for a good job led Lee to leave school and go into the construction trades. He traveled from one job site to another for about 15 years, and over time developed an addiction to alcohol.
His addiction eventually led to legal problems, which brought him to Winslow Guidance Associates in 2011, not as an employee but as a patient under a court order. It was while he was at the center that his life began to turn around.
“I went through the substance abuse program and when I completed it, I was hired to do maintenance and then peer support,” Lee explained.
The center’s director, Bob Candelaria, saw that Lee worked well with the patients at the center and looking into his work history, saw that he had experience in working in a treatment facility for disabled people after high school. The experience allowed him to be hired on as a behavioral health tech, which, over time, led to his current position as program manager over all the programs offered at the facility.
With the support of his fellow employees Lee enrolled in Rio Salado in the spring of 2014 with the goal of becoming a licensed independent citizen contractor for substance abuse disorders at the center. He travels from Winslow to Phoenix every two weeks to pick up his son and his son’s mother from the airport, and made the effort to go early to visit with the advisors and peer mentors at Rio Salado, thus building a relationship with those at the college.
Lee was doing well with work and school, but hit a stumbling block in August when his younger sister passed away.
“It was two days before my birthday and time to take my finals and I just wasn’t up for it. When my baby sister passed away I just lost my motivation,” he said.
Lee decided to go to the college for help. Between its mentor program and the support of his co-workers, he was able to get the good grades he deserved and move forward.
Shortly after his finals he was asked by the college to take part in a review being conducted to determine if the mentoring program at Rio Salado should be continued. The Gates Foundation funds the program, and wanted to determine if it was an effective program that should be continued.
“I went down in October and gave a testimonial about how much this program has helped me. I wanted to give back to them for what they had done for me,” stated Lee, who, along with one other student, spoke to a board of six representatives of the foundation.
“I talked about how there weren’t really any services out here, and they wanted to know how I overcame my circumstances with the death of my sister and not having much time to spend with my son. I told them it was about time management and commitment; I was doing this for me and my son,” he recalled.
A month following the presentation, Lee was once again contacted to return to the college for a luncheon. “They were pretty secretive about it and weren’t telling me too much,” he said.
When he arrived and was told to find his place at the table, he discovered that he was in for a rare experience.
“I was seated next to Bill Gates. It was a total surprise, I didn’t even know that he was going to be there,” stated Lee.
Gates visited with Lee and others present for over an hour, discussing online learning, the challenges of returning to school, what works and what doesn’t for people living in rural areas.
“We discussed the challenges and the benefits of online schooling over traditional schooling, and what it means to people like me living in rural areas,” he said.
When asked what it was like to visit with one of the world’s wealthiest men, a man who, among other things, co-founded Microsoft, Lee noted that he was very impressed.
“He was a very genuine man, very humble…He has a lot of money, but he didn’t flaunt it and was very down to earth,” he said.
Gates was also impressed with Lee, and wrote about his visit on his blog Gatesnotes under the heading The Future of Higher Education. In his blog, Gates refers to this future as being a “college without walls,” and how Lee is an example of how this type of education process is an effective method for building success in people’s lives.
Many colleges and universities are now offering courses online in order to reach people who cannot travel to a traditional classroom. By revisiting the methods of instruction, more people can discover a path to a new future.
“I have finally found my calling,” said Lee. “Being a former alcoholic, I came crawling from a dark place. It’s because of my belief in a creator that I know this is his plan for me. I believe that anyone can succeed, no matter your age, no matter where you come from. First you have to make the decision and know that every day you are striving for something better for your family and your children.”
Lee intends to complete his schooling over the course of the next couple of years and continue working at the Winslow Guidance Associates, giving the same hope to others that was given to him.