10 Students Who Overcame Massive Obstacles to Achieve Their Dream of an Education

Whenever your morale starts flagging — when you start to feel like the world is against you, the obstacles in your path are insurmountable, or the goals you have set for yourself are no more than pipe dreams — take a moment to reflect on those who have faced even more impossible odds just to achieve something that most of us take for granted: education. What follows is a series of profiles on ten students from all walks of life who have overcome extraordinary adversity of all kinds — and emerged with remarkable stories of courage, strength, and determination.

1. Khadijah Williams

By the time she turned 18, Khadijah Williams had attended twelve schools in as many years. She had lived in shelters, in parks and in motels, never in a permanent residence for more than a few months. She had endured the leering of pimps and drug dealers, and the tauntings of students at a dozen schools who pegged her as “different.” But in 2009, at age 18, Khadijah had also been accepted at Harvard University. Homeless since early childhood, Khadijah struggled all her life to hide her circumstances from teachers and fellow students. At age 9 she placed in the 99th percentile on a state exam, and her teacher told her she was “gifted.” From that moment forward, Khadijah decided to do whatever it took to keep herself in that category. “I was so proud of being smart I never wanted people to say,”You got the easy way out because you’re homeless,” she told The LA Times. “I never saw it as an excuse.”[1]

By sophomore year of high school, she realized that she could not succeed in getting the education she dreamed of without getting help to go beyond what her current school could offer. She talked to teachers and counselors who helped her apply to summer community college classes, scholarships, and enrichment programs. And in 11th grade, when she enrolled at Jefferson High School, she decided to complete the rest of her school career there — a decision that meant taking a bus each morning at 4 a.m. and not getting home until 11 p.m.

When it came time to apply for college, Khadijah finally told the whole story of her life, including how difficult it had been to keep up at school, in her application essay. By focusing not on the hardships she endured, but rather on the lessons and skills she learned from them, she was accepted into Harvard.

Once Khadijah felt ready to tell her story, it won her notice not only from college admissions boards, but also from the news media, including Oprah, who profiled Khadijah on her show. Now a successful student at Harvard, Khadijah continues to use the lessons of her extraordinary life to help and inspire other students.

2. Aduei Riak

To meet Aduei Riak, now 25 and a student at The London School of Economics and Political Science, you’d never guess the horrors she experienced as a young girl in Sudan. Poised and well-spoken, Aduei prefers to talk about her friends and family, her goals, and her bright vision of the future, rather than the years she spent in refugee camps and on the run from the political upheaval across Africa.“I’ve seen a lot of things that a person of my age should not have been exposed to,” Aduei told USA Today. “The (memories) tend to be very dark and gray. I don’t like talking about them, because for me talking about them is living them again.”[2]

At age 6, Aduei was separated from her family during a civil war in Ethiopia, and from then on she was on her own. She soon joined the thousands of orphans from similarly torn-apart families who walked over a thousand miles to find refuge. These children, often called The Lost Boys or Lost Children of Sudan, eventually found the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where Aduei remained from ages 8-16.In 2000 Aduei arrived in The United States as one of only 89 girls in a group of more than 4,000 orphans in a Lost Boys and Girls resettlement program. She joined a foster family in Belmont, Massachusetts, and began attending high school despite the fact that she spoke barely any English. She devoted herself to her studies, however, and mastered the language by spending hours watching television shows like Sesame Street. Her foster family also engaged a number of tutors to help Aduei catch up.

Within just a couple of years Aduei had become a top student, and in 2003 she was accepted at Brandeis University, one of the most prestigious schools in The United States. Upon graduation in 2007, Aduei was presented with an award for integrating social activism and academic study, and was also named a Justice Louis Brandeis Scholar. Since graduating, Aduei has campaigned against genocide in Darfur, was a keynote speaker at the International Women’s Leadership Conference, and is starting a foundation to help girls in Sudan receive an education. [3] Aduei is also being featured in a documentary film that tells the story of the Lost Girls of Sudan, entitled Like River, A Girl.

3. Jeremy Sicile-Kira

Jeremy Sicile-Kira’s road to high school graduation was an exceptionally difficult one. Severely autistic and unable to speak, Jeremy nevertheless persevered through seven years at Torrey Pines High School, determined to earn his diploma.

Using a letter board to communicate, Jeremy took as many classes as he could in the mainstream education program in addition to special needs classes. He got extra time to complete his assignments, but Jeremy did all the same coursework as his classmates.

Jeremy’s autism affects his hearing, vision, and motor skills. He has never been able to speak, and it takes all his concentration to distinguish which sounds and sights to focus on. “If I don’t concentrate, the world seems surreal,” Jeremy explained.[4] Nevertheless, Jeremy was determined to get the most out of his education, and with encouragement from his parents and teachers, he realized that his autism did not mean he wasn’t as smart as his classmates.

Jeremy passed his California High School Exit Exam, finished high school with a 3.5 GPA, and was invited to speak at graduation. He delivered the speech through voice-assisted technology, which verbalized his written speech. In his speech, Jeremy thanks his teachers and administrators and talks about the importance of education.

4. Sharhonda Perkins

It took Sharhonda Perkins a long time to come to fully appreciate the importance of education. For most of her academic career she didn’t care much about school one way or the other. But during her junior year of high school, five of her family members died in a fire that also destroyed all of her possessions.

That was when Sharhonda realized that she had to depend on herself, and that the only way to make something of her life was to get an education.The realization that she’d been taking her life for granted did not immediately lead to a 180 degree turnaround in her academic performance. For years she hadn’t taken her studies seriously, and she didn’t quite know how to go about turning over a new leaf. But at Danbury, Connecticut’s Alternative Center for Excellence, Sharhonda learned how to channel her pain from the loss of her family into a determination to succeed.

Sharhonda graduated in June of this year, speaking at graduation as the recipient of the Spirit of the Community Award. “This was a turning point. I saw life as more than a joke,” she told the audience. “It took great tragedies to reach this point, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

5. Avi Rosenblum

Avi Rosenblum is a gifted athlete, a star on his high school’s varsity football and baseball teams and an inductee into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California. But his successes on the sports fields don’t make up for the difficulties his faced in other parts of his life, which Avi has worked doubly hard to overcome while maintaining the rigorous practice and workout schedules demanded by his pursuits in sports.

Avi is an African-American adopted by white Jewish parents. Abandoned at just 12-days-old to an adoption agency in Texas, Avi has struggled all his life against the multiple difficulties that come of being adopted into an interracial family. As a child, Avi tried desperately to connect with his birth mother, trying to uncover the mystery of where he had come from, what his family looked like, and, above all, why his mother had given him away. But he and his adoptive parents received no answer to any of their queries until 2008, when his birth mother contacted the adoption agency, attempting to get in touch with Avi. Avi has since learned more about his mother and his siblings, and has developed a relationship with his older brother, although he has chosen not to communicate with his birth mother.

In addition to these struggles in his personal life, Avi has also battled attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and language-based learning disabilities. He has had to work exceptionally hard to succeed in his classes, receiving special accommodations in order to help him get past his disability.

This Spirit of Achievement video features Avi’s commitment to family, football, and education.

6. Tyree Johnson

In middle school, Tyree Johnson was floundering. He didn’t care about school or much else since he had been sent into foster care after his drug-addicted mother could no longer care for Tyree or his sister. For two years they had floated from one foster home to another, and this lack of stability and motivation had fostered feelings of deep resentment and apathy in Tyree. But then a social worker suggested that Tyree apply to the New Visions Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared toward helping students get to higher education.

Tyree entered the foundation’s Center for Educational Opportunity, a program specifically for foster children, and before long he was back on track to an education and a bright future. Thanks to a scholarship from the Center for Educational Opportunity, Tyree began attending the New Roads School, and there he has thrived. It’s a two-hour commute each way, but Tyree knows that it’s worth the extra time and effort for an education in an environment where he feels at home.

The transition into the strict, private school atmosphere wasn’t easy, but through the encouragement and opportunities he’s received at the school, Tyree has come to view the experience as “challenging and magical.”[5] He has also discovered a passion for fashion, and intends to start his own designer label one day. Tyree’s academic performance has so improved that the director of the Center encouraged him to apply for the $10,000 Beat the Odds Scholarship, which he won in December of 2009. As of 2009 Tyree had already been accepted into a number of colleges and was profiled as one of ABC Local’s “Cool Kids.”

7. Jeanine Horowitz

Of course, it’s not only teen-aged high schoolers who overcome tremendous adversity to achieve their dream of education. Jeanine Horowitz was 37 when she received her Bachelor’s degree from UCLA, the culmination of years of work and struggle.

A single mother, Jeanine supported herself and her daughter for years with temp jobs. When the economy tanked, Jeanine lost her home, and she and her daughter were forced to live out of her car while she fought her way out of poverty. In her spare moments, Jeanine dedicated to herself to her passion for writing, and in 2001 she published her first book. This achievement allowed her to return to college to complete her Bachelor’s in Education and Religion. But the need to continue working to support herself and her daughter made it a long, hard road to graduation. Finally, in 2007, with the help of her academic mentor, she earned her degree.

Upon graduation, Jeanine was profiled in a Fox News report, which helped to launch the book tour for her latest novel.

8. Michael Coady

In March of 2008, Michael Coady was in a snowboarding accident that left him with a broken neck and a severe spinal cord injury. At just 17, Michael was a quadriplegic. For the first two months after his injury, he could only move his shoulders; the rest of his body simply wouldn’t respond to his commands.

Determined to overcome his injury, Michael spent six months at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax, where he has improved to the point of having some ability to move all four limbs. He will probably have impaired movement in all of his limbs for the rest of his life, but Michael maintains his goal of one day regaining the full use of his legs. In June of 2008, he took his first steps since the accident.

In the meantime he has remained dedicated to his education. He has been saving for college since the age of 10, and has every intention of earning his degree. “He is still planning to take business at St. Mary’s University and is busy filling out scholarships,” said his mother.[6]Michael’s determination and good humor in the face of adversity shine through in his high school graduation address, which can be watched below:

9. Pamela Miller

There are few emotional blows more difficult for a child to overcome than the death of a parent, and when that death is a suicide, the effect can be even more devastating. But Pamela Miller, whose father committed suicide when she was a child, drew from the experience the drive to achieve her dreams and ambitions.

“I honestly feel that no one should have to endure what my family and I have gone through…” she wrote to Ziff Law Firm. “… However, as horrible as some of my life’s experiences have been, I try to extract some good out of them.”[7]

This attitude helped Pamela to rise to the top 15 percent of her class; to become a member of the varsity track and cheerleading teams; to join the Key Club, the National Honor Society and History Club; and to become the Secretary of Concert Choir and a Youth Rotary Scholar. And in May of 2009, Pamela was the recipient of the Ziff Law Overcoming Adversity Scholarship.

10. Marjorie Elliott

Lastly, there are those who are so dedicated to their dream of education that they keep at it despite the struggles of a lifetime. In July of 2010, at age 75, Marjorie Elliot of Orange County became one of the oldest people ever to receive a high school diploma.

Marjorie was pulled out of school at age 14 to help support her family. She always intended to go back and finish one day, but there was never enough money for her to stop working. In 1964 she and her husband divorced, and Marjorie was left to raise her three daughters on the income of a high-school dropout.

“I pulled the cart all by myself for all those years with my three girls,” Marjorie told The Orange County Register. “It was very difficult when they were little, because I was not intelligent enough to even help them with their homework.”[8] She put all of her resources into getting tutors for her girls, determined that they would get the education she’d never had.

In 2008 Marjorie was laid off from her job. Her daughters had all grown up and graduated, and Marjorie decided the time had come to finally achieve her goal of getting her diploma. It was enormously difficult for her, as she had to struggle to keep up with the other students to learn things they already knew, such as how to use the computers. But Marjorie persevered, and ultimately graduated with a 4.0 gpa.

Immediately after graduating, Marjorie decided to go on to college. “I think I can do it,” she said. “I won’t say I can’t, because I know I can, and I know I will.”

[1] http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/20/local/me-harvard20
[2] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-07-23-lost-girls_N.htm

[3] http://www.likeriveragirl.com/index-1.html

[4] http://www.chantalsicile-kira.com/2010/06/479-inspirational-autistic-tphs-student-graduates-will-deliver-a-commencement-speech/

[5] http://www.dailybreeze.com/news/ci_13920118

[6] http://www.capebretonpost.com/Wellbeing/2008-10-31/article-770522/Teens-determination-in-the-face-of-adversity-an-inspiration-to-family-and-friends/1

[7] http://www.zifflaw.com/NYInjuryLawBlog/pamela-miller-southside-zifflaw-scholarship-winner

[8] http://www.ocregister.com/articles/elliott-256255-school-high.html

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Defrauding Education – A Look at Notorious Impostors, Fakers, or Otherwise Frauds

There are people who go through life playing by the rules, who work and strive and sweat to achieve the things they want — and then there are those who don’t. Some people lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top, and it’s quite amazing just how creative and audacious some of these crafty characters can be. What follows is a series of men and women who cheated the system in spectacular fashion by faking their education and credentials. From lying about a perfect academic record to get into Harvard, to assuming the identity of a Naval surgeon, these folks have defrauded their way into infamy.

1. Frank Abagnale, legendary imposter and forger of checks.

Frank Abagnale is perhaps the greatest and best-known fraud in history. Rather than lying about his background once in order to land a job, Abagnale made a career of assuming one profession after another. Born in 1948, he began forging checks as a young man, collecting more than $40,000 in the course of a few years. He impersonated a pilot for two years before deciding to push the envelope a little further in faking a highly-educated and specifically-skilled background. He impersonated a pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the name “Frank Conners” for 11 months, managing to become a resident supervisor on the merits of his made-up education and experience. He was fired, however, when he was responsible for the near-death of an infant due to his near-total lack of medical expertise. From there, Abagnale went on to his greatest con yet: he forged a Law degree from Harvard University, and passed the Louisiana State Bar Exam — he claims he passed it legitimately, rather than forging the results, by taking it over and over until he figured out how to answer the questions correctly. He then got a job at the State Attorney General’s office, although he didn’t stay long because a real Harvard graduate worked in the same office. Abagnale resigned for fear of discovery. His next trick was to forge a degree from Columbia University, which he used to get a position teaching at Brigham Young University (although reports vary on whether he was a professor or a teaching assistant).


By 1969, Abagnale’s career of forgery and fraud had earned him Wanted posters in no less than 26 countries. He was finally arrested in France when a flight attendant recognized him from one such Wanted poster. Abagnale served the first of three prison sentences — first in France, then in Sweden, and finally 12 years in a US federal prison. Upon his release in 1974, Abagnale began consulting banks on matters of fraud. This was so successful that he eventually founded Abagnale & Associates, a legitimate consulting firm, where he still works today. He also wrote a novel based on his exploits entitled, Catch Me If You Can, on which a movie was made starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

2. Ferdinand Damarra, quack surgeon and psychologist.


Upon his release from the U.S. Army in 1941, Ferdinand Damarra stole the identity of an army buddy, Anthony Ignolia. For reasons best known to himself, he soon faked his own suicide and then adopted a new false identity, a religious psychologist named Robert Linton French. Both the army and the navy caught wind of his illegal activities, however, and Damarra served 18 months in prison. Upon his release, he exhibited no signs of remorse nor desire for honest work, preferring instead to continue assuming false names and trades. At various times and places, Damarra masqueraded as a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. Most famously of all, Damarra stole the identity of Canadian naval surgeon Joseph Cyr, and worked as a surgeon aboard the HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War. He actually managed to perform numerous surgeries successfully, improvising techniques and administering penicillin to prevent infection. He wasn’t caught until the real Joseph Cyr’s mother discovered Damarra’s deceit and reported him.


Damarra seemed to be more interested in the thrill of the game than in becoming rich or famous; his exploits never got him much money, but they did lend him authority and respect while they lasted. He served a number of prison sentences for fraud, but he always returned to his old antics soon after his release. This pattern continued until his interlude as Dr. Joseph Cyr ended, at which point he returned to the U.S., and became a Baptist minister until his death in 1982. His life was the inspiration for the 1960 film The Great Imposter.

3. Adam Wheeler, fake model student and Harvard scammer extraordinaire.


Adam Wheeler made it all the way to his senior year at Harvard University before anyone found out that he’d faked his credentials to get in. He would have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn’t applied for a Rhodes Scholarship using an augmented transcript, fabricated letters of recommendation from numerous professors at Harvard, writing samples that were plagiarized from other professors, and a resume that included a list of books that he supposedly co-authored and lectures and courses he supposedly taught. One of the professors reviewing his application recognized the plagiarized writing and began digging. The professor exposed Wheeler to school officials, who then scrutinized his student file. It was through the ensuing investigation that they found out that Wheeler had also lied on his application to Harvard, fabricating a perfect academic record from Phillips Academy in Andover and claiming to be a transfer student from MIT. In fact, Wheeler was an average student who’d attended a public high school in Delaware, then spent an unremarkable year at Bowdoin College before pulling his first great con on Harvard.


In May of 2010 Wheeler was indicted on twenty offenses, including identity fraud and larceny. Wheeler’s scam cost Harvard an estimated $45,000 in financial aid and grants. As of June 2010 he was awaiting his sentence. Here is video of his arraignment.

4. Marvin Hewitt, phony physicist.


Some people fake their credentials because they lack the intelligence, skills, or talent to earn their education legitimately. Others have intelligence and talent in spades, and simply lack the discipline or social adjustment to make it through the traditional system. Such was the case with Marvin Hewitt, who taught himself out of books from an early age and dropped out of school at age 17 because he was so bored and frustrated with his peers’ and teachers’ inability to keep pace with him. He was a manual laborer until 1945, when he won a job teaching eighth grade science by sending an application that claimed he held a degree from Temple University. The school was closed within a year, but by then Hewitt had decided that teaching was his calling in life, and no lack of training or education would stop him. For the next seven years, Hewitt adopted several different identities, all of established nuclear physicists, and taught at three colleges and four universities across seven states. No matter who he pretended to be or where he taught, he was acknowledged as a competent physicist and an effective teacher.


In 1953 Hewitt was teaching physics at the University of New Hampshire under the name Dr. Kenneth Yates when one of his students became suspicious and launched an investigation. It wasn’t long before the real Dr. Yates was discovered living and working in the Midwest, and Hewitt was asked to resign. Because he was a favorite among the students and had proven himself to be a knowledgeable scientist, however, the university did not press charges or pursue the matter any further. In fact, when the story got out, Hewitt was approached with several job offers, but he turned them all down and, as far as anyone knows, retired from academic life thereafter.

5. Lana Nguyen, fraud and lousy professor.


Lana Ngyuen had been divorced from her husband, Hien Nguyen, for six years when she decided to apply for a position teaching software engineering at the University of Regina — using his PhD. She submitted her resume under the name Lana H. Nguyen, leading the university to believe that she and Hien were the same person. Nguyen taught at the university for two years, but there were consistent complaints from students about her teaching methods and her lack of understanding of the subject matter. A performance review in 2001 raised questions about her qualifications, and the resulting investigation revealed her fraud.


Nguyen was asked to resign and faced three charges of fraud, to which she pleaded guilty. According to her lawyer, Nguyen maintained that she deserved the credit for her husband’s degree, because “she feels that she earned her ex-husband’s PhD by doing the research for his PhD thesis.”

6. Gerald Barnbaum, aka. Gerald C. Barnes, quack doctor and impersonator.


It seems that Gerald Barnbaum, a pharmacist who lost his license due to Medicaid fraud charges in the mid-1970s, would do anything to be a real doctor. Or more specifically, he would do anything to be Dr. Gerald C. Barnes, a respected orthopedic surgeon living in Stockton, California. In 1976 Barnbaum legally changed his last name to Barnes, systematically contacted all of Barnes’s alma maters and licensors to obtain copies of his diploma and credentials, and embarked on a 20-year career of impersonating the real doctor. The phony Barnes worked at clinics throughout Southern California, even conducting physicals on FBI agents under his assumed identity. In 1979, he was caught for the first time after being arrested on charges of involuntary manslaughter when he failed to treat a diabetic man who died as a result. He served a three-year sentence, but upon his release he immediately resumed his false identity and found more work as Dr. Barnes.


Barnbaum was caught and imprisoned five times between 1979 and 2004. In 2000, during a transfer to another prison during his 4th sentence, he escaped and immediately resumed work as Dr. Barnes. He was found within a month and was made to finish the 12-year sentence, which ended in 2009. He is now serving his fifth sentence, a 10-year term on fraud charges and an additional 2 ½ years for the escape. The real Dr. Gerald Barnes, meanwhile, has been practicing medicine all this time, and has had to fight constantly to dissociate himself from the imposter and clear his name from all the fraudulent credit charges, criminal charges, and other trouble Barnbaum caused with his name.

7. Tang Jun, President Emeritus of Microsoft China and former President of Shanda Interactive Entertainment


In 2008, Tang Jun was crowned China’s “Emperor Employee,” the country’s highest-paid person with an annual salary of 14 million in US dollars. A hugely successful manager and CEO, Tang led first Microsoft China and then Shanda Interactive Entertainment to market leadership and enormous profit margins. In July of 2010, however, the celebrated businessman was accused of falsely claiming to have a PhD from the California Institute of Technology. Fang Zhouzi, a self-proclaimed crusader against academic fraud and scientific misconduct, cited passages in Tang’s autobiography where he claimed to have attended both Caltech and Nagoya University in Japan. In response to the accusation Tang admitted that he’d actually received his degree from Pacific Western University, but further investigation revealed that the school is not an accredited institution and had been sued for being a diploma mill.


Although Tang Jun has not faced criminal charges for his deception, he has endured a significant loss of standing both in China and in the international business community. Formerly a role model for domestic management and self-made success, Tang is now associated with the corruption and morally-relativistic competition inherent in emerging economies. Interestingly, the investigation into his credentials also uncovered an entirely unrelated scandal revolving around a real estate Ponzi scheme, for which Tang is now being investigated. Tang’s response to the outcries of the past few months has been unrepentant: “Losers cheat some people and get caught. Winners cheat the whole world all the time.”

Check out this video interview of Mr. Jun: Video Interview

8. Carolyn Myss, alternative medicine guru and bestselling author.


Carolyn Myss received her B.A. in Journalism in 1974 from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. Rather than pursuing a career in journalism, however, Myss decided to pursue her calling as a medical intuitive and mystic. She earned a Master’s in Theology from Mundelein College in 1979, and from there she launched a career as an energy healer, spiritual guru, and New Age consultant. Throughout the 80′s and early 90′s she was very successful as a private alternative medicine consultant despite her lack of medical training. She collaborated with an actual M.D., Dr. Norman Shealy, to add credibility to her medical intuitive readings and energy medicine.

By 1996, however, she wanted to break out on her own, and began writing. She published her first book, Anatomy of the Spirit, in 1996. It was at that point that a new credential appeared on her resume: a PhD in Intuition and Energy Medicine. This degree lent her the authority and credibility to stand on her own as a leader in alternative medicine. Her book was an immediate bestseller, and with the publication of the following four books and audio CDs, she achieved international fame and fortune, even appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show several times. With her fame came the end of her private consultations. In 2000 she stopped giving intuitive medical readings and advice on alternative medicine, and instead began speaking publicly — in seminars, lectures, radio shows, and workshops. It was right around this time that people began to point out that her PhD is from Greenwich University, an unaccredited institution based out of Australia, and that she’d received her degree from a correspondence-based branch of the school in Hawaii. A few people also noticed that Myss herself was the creator and head of the department of Energy Medicine.


In 2002 Greenwich University was exposed as a degree mill, and the Hawaii branch was shut down. Since that time, although she still refers to herself as a PhD, the title has been dropped from her website and from her publisher’s profile page. Other than that and the abrupt end of her private consulting, however, Myss has faced no real consequences for her fraudulent claim. She continues to speak and publish, and in 2003 she founded the Caroline Myss Educational Institute in conjunction with Wisdom University in San Francisco.

9. Charles Abell, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and phony MA holder


Accountability may be a low priority in professions like energy healing, but a 2004 investigation revealed that defrauding education is a rampant problem even in top-level federal bureaucracy. During the Bush administration, a study by the General Accounting Office found that 463 government employees had degrees from diploma mills, including a number of high-ranking government officials who had padded their resumes in order to get promoted in the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy, among others. Among these was Charles Abell, a decorated 26-year army man, who worked for the State Armed Services Committee under John Warner after his discharge. He then became a campaign donor for both Warner and George W. Bush. When Bush was elected, Abell was appointed the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy, and then Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in 2002. At some point between his army discharge and his high-ranking government appointment, Abell obtained a Master of Science degree from Columbus University, a degree mill in Louisiana that has since been shut down. Even worse, many of the false degrees held by government officials were paid for with taxpayers’ money, although investigators do not know whether Abell’s is among these.


Amazingly, neither Abell nor the Bush administration faced any consequences for defrauding education. The Pentagon refused to allow reporters to interview Abell or the other officials revealed to have bogus degrees. They released a statement on the matter stating simply, “We don’t consider it an issue.”

10. Rob Kalin, co-founder and CEO of Etsy.com


Sometimes a person is so talented that nothing can keep them from success, not even complete academic failure. Rob Kalin, for example, dropped out of high school with a D-minus average, but nevertheless won admission to a studio program at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts solely on the strength of his portfolio. Deeply ambitious despite his undisciplined and unorthodox approach to learning, Kalin wanted to move faster than the program would allow him to. When he learned of a program that allowed graduate students in his course of study to take design classes at MIT, Kalin forged graduate credentials and an ID card so that he could attend.


His professors were so impressed with his work that they helped him get into NYU, where he learned web design but eventually graduated with a degree in Classics. He went on to become the co-founder and CEO of Etsy.com, a wildly successful online hand-crafts marketplace, where nobody has ever asked him to present his credentials.









Inspiring the Inspired – 7 Mentors of Great Historical Figures

Inspiration comes in a variety of forms. Many of us look to famous artists, intellectuals, entertainers and world leaders in search of ways to help us think, create, problem-solve and achieve. Yet, even the most famous and respected figures rely on personal mentors and heroes who are often a friend, family member, or teacher—an ordinary person whose wisdom, guidance and support has inspired them to achieve the extraordinary. The following are a few such examples.

A Music Teacher Inspires a President

As the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton is widely considered to be one of the most influential people of the 20th century. During his administration, the United States enjoyed more peace and economic well-being than at any other time in its history, and he was the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. Clinton was often thought of as the “People’s President,” thanks to his down-to-earth demeanor and blue-collar appeal. One of his most memorable moments happened when he appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show” while on the campaign trail. Clinton dazzled the world by showing off his saxophone skills, which he learned from one of the most influential people in his life: Virgil M. Spurlin.

An early influence on a teenage Clinton, Spurlin was the band director at Hot Springs High School. According to Clinton, Spurlin taught him more than just music, and their relationship was part of the reason Clinton decided to go into politics. In interviews, Clinton praises his teacher for always trying to find things that people were good at and for teaching him how to get organized and allocate resources while on yearly band trips. “I really felt that my early years with him convinced me that I could organize and run things. That I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I could actually marshal other people in a common effort, and of course if you’re in politics that’s very important,” said Clinton.

Clinton remained close to Spurlin until he passed away, and their relationship is just one example of how a teacher can inspire a future leader to hit the right notes.

Oprah Winfrey Learns Her Greatest Lesson

Oprah Winfrey is without question one of the world’s most celebrated personalities. She has inspired millions with her television show, magazines, movies and humanitarian efforts. Though, Oprah wasn’t always the strong woman she is today. As a child, she was very insecure but found strength in her fourth grade teacher, Mary Duncan.

Duncan instantly recognized something special in Winfrey and could tell that something was holding her back, so she encouraged her to read aloud for the class, which helped Winfrey overcome her nerves and gain self-confidence. Duncan also stayed after school with Winfrey on a regular basis, taking her under her wing and asking her to help out with classroom tasks. “She helped me choose books and let me help her grade papers,” recalls Winfrey, stressing the importance of their relationship. “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view. I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship. And we are all mentors to people, even when we don’t know it.”

Many years later, Winfrey’s producers surprised her by bringing Mary Duncan onto the show, something which she describes as one of the most memorable experiences of her life. “My eyes filled with tears, and I said, ‘Mrs. Duncan had a name! Her name is Mary.’ As a child, I hadn’t even considered that Mrs. Duncan might have had a life beyond our class. It was in her class that I really came into myself. After all these years, I could say ‘thank you’ to a woman who had a powerful impact on my early life.”

A Professor Helps Bring a Dream to Life

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an iconic and heroic leader in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world and one of the most inspiring individuals to ever live. Like many others, he developed ambitions for social change as young adult, ambitions that were nurtured and supported by his mentor, Dr. Benjamin Mays, a distinguished African American minister and scholar. The two met when Dr. King was only fourteen years old and attended Morehouse College, where Dr. Mays was president.

After meeting Dr. King and his family, Dr. Mays took an immediate liking to the young student, instantly recognizing something special in him. The feeling was mutual, as Dr. King looked forward to attending Mays’s Tuesday sermons to the student body and oftenstuck around to chat with Mays afterward.

The two formed a close bond, allowing Mays to share many ideas that would heavily influence King’s activism. He taught him about Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent protest and stressed the importance of upholding the dignity of all human beings despite unfair social practices. They remained close for the duration of Dr. King’s life, and Dr. King would come to refer to Dr. Mays as his “spiritual and emotional father.”

A Grandmother Provides the Muse for a Singer

Gloria Estefan is one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time. Along with the band, Miami Sound Machine, the Cuban-born Estefan has sold over 90 million albums worldwide and has won seven Grammy awards.

There was a time in her life, however, when Estefan had doubts about following the path of music, despite her natural abilities to perform–doubts that she overcame thanks to the help of her grandmother, Consuelo Garcia.

Garcia, according to her famous granddaughter, was a woman ahead of her time; someone who wanted to be a lawyer even thought it was unheard of for a woman to do so, and someone who could easily inspire others with her strong spirit.

“The most valuable lessons I learned from my grandmother were to discover what makes you happy, and do it with as much energy and joy as you can muster,” said Estefan. “And that success takes perseverance, determination, and an unwavering belief in what you have chosen to do. My grandmother always pointed out my strengths and filled me with hope for the future. She constantly nourished my inquisitiveness and shared many quests for seeking answers to my questions. She wasn’t afraid to let me see her vulnerability and made that intimacy an asset to be celebrated. Primarily through her example, I learned that we, as women, have limitless potential. I finally said yes to music because of her.”

A Drama Teacher Inspires an Oscar-Winning Performance

Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows the name Tom Hanks. The award-winning actor is one of the world’s most popular entertainers whose films have grossed over $4 billion worldwide. Though most people know him from movies and television, Hanks’s acting career began in the halls of Skyline Hills High School in Oakland, California, under the direction of drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth.

Eager to learn the craft, Hanks took all six of Farnsworth’s classes, during which Farnsworth immediately spotted a genuine comedic talent but encouraged Hanks to be a more dramatic and versatile actor. “Tom was very smart in that respect,” recalls Farnsworth. “I always knew he would go places.”

Indeed, Hanks did. In 1993, he won an Academy Award for his gripping depiction of Andrew Beckett, a lawyer infected with AIDS fighting against bigotry and homophobia in the film, Philadelphia. During his emotional Oscar speech, Hanks credited his experiences with Farnsworth as a major source of inspiration.

“Here’s what I know… I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life, two I haven’t spoken with in a while but I had the pleasure of just the other evening – Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me ‘Act well the part, there all the glory lies’, and one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.”

In thanking Farnsworth that night in front of millions of people, Hanks reminded us of the true value and inspiration that teachers bring.

A Journalist Learns the Importance of the Story

When it comes to journalists, they don’t come any greater than Walter Cronkite. Often called “the most trusted man in America,” Cronkite covered nearly every major news event in his sixty-year career. He liked to tell stories with great passion, a passion he learned from his high school journalism teacher, Fred Birney.

As a student at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Cronkite was inspired by Birney’s pioneering efforts and passion for journalism. During a time when few schools had journalism classes or student newspapers, Birney convinced the Houston Board of Education to allow him to teach a journalism class once a week at three local high schools.

“He was a newspaperman of the old school and taught us a great deal about reporting and writing. He also became a sponsor of the San Jacinto High School newspaper, the Campus Cub. Under his tutelage, we published it monthly, whereas it had previously been published in a casual manner, just three or four times a year. During my junior year, I was the sports editor of the Campus Cub and its chief editor in my senior year,” recalled Cronkite.

Upon nearing graduation, Cronkite was torn between pursuing a career in journalism and becoming a mining engineer. But thanks to Birney, the choice was clear.

“He taught me so much in those high school classes, and by securing me early jobs, he cemented my desire to be a reporter for the rest of my life. He was my major inspiration. I always credit Fred Birney for my career,” added Cronkite.

The Man Who Inspired Gandhi

There are few people who have had a more profound effect on the world than Mahatma Gandhi. As mentioned earlier, he was an inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as for Nelson Mandela and so many others.

Gandhi also learned from someone, Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian leader who helped to start the Indian Independence Movement in 1857. Upon learning of Naoroji’s intentions, Gandhi was eager to join in the efforts. In 1888, he wrote Naoroji a letter, which read, “…you will, therefore oblige me greatly if you will kindly direct and guide me and make necessary suggestions which shall be received as from a father to his child.”

Naoroji took Gandhi under his wing and instilled in him the importance of peaceful protests. Thanks to the teachings, Gandhi was able to hold the largest demonstration of nonviolent resistance in 1947, which handed the country of India back to its people. Upon describing their relationship further, Gandhi would later write, “The story of a life so noble and yet so simple needs no introduction from me or anybody else. May it be an inspiration to the readers even as Dadabhai living was to me. And so Dadabhai became real DADA to me.”






Understanding Illiteracy Infographic

As education becomes more available throughout the U.S. and the world at large, illiteracy rates are steadily declining. Still, an inability to read is an incredibly widespread and common problem, even in the United States. Additionally, reading literacy is not the only issue. Many Americans can not perform mathematical tasks required be even the most basic job positions. It is clear that there are issues in the educational system that are allowing students to pass through without having adequately learned what should be required. The following infographic takes a look at literacy in the U.S. and around the world.


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