Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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From setbacks to comebacks

Q: "Precious," a critically acclaimed new movie starring Gabourey Sidibe, chronicles the journey of an abused 16-year-old girl struggling to overcome her parents' brutality. What can we learn from those who are able to survive terrible circumstances? What's the most inspiring survival story you've encountered?

Heroic women walk through the front door of Trinity every day. My students have not simply survived, but triumphed over conditions that could have defeated more timid souls. They tell their stories in application essays that reveal their amazing inner strength: refugees from Rwanda, immigrants from Central America, African American women from some of the most impoverished corners of our city -- women determined, against all odds, to earn college degrees so they can provide more secure futures for their children and families.

One of Trinity's great stories of survival and triumph is Philonda Johnson, Class of 2005, the youngest principal in the KIPP charter school system. Only a few years out of Trinity, after intensive training with Teach for America, Philonda founded the KIPP DC: Discover Academy charter school here for preschool children.

In remarks she made to our senior class earlier this fall, she spoke of the hesitation and fears she had in trying to start the school. "I struggled with the fact that as a 23-year-old formerly homeless woman from New York City, that I had what it took to build and lead an exemplary school," she said. She talked about how she overcame her hesitation by dreaming big, persisting in her goals, and taking advantage of the opportunities that came her way while at Trinity. Today, Philonda is a remarkable success story.

Another Trinity student who attends our program at THEARC in southeast Washington recently spoke of the time she was homeless and unemployed; now, she has a job and her own home, and she will soon finish her degree. As she spoke, others nodded in agreement and shared their stories of persisting through struggles to deeply satisfying success -- a good grade in math, a promotion at work, more respect among peers, inspiration for their children to do even better in school.

Other students talk openly about the challenges of rising above violence, poverty and the low expectations of neighborhood circumstances. One first-year student wrote in her application essay, "I have witnessed young black women beaten, raped and verbally abused. At age fourteen, I would wake to phrases such as, 'You're stupid!' I would also encounter painful words informing me that my only purpose in life was to have babies. I do not want to be another negative statistic. I want to be something and make something of my life." She is well on her way to achieving that goal.

Another student put it this way in her application essay: She is determined to "turn my setbacks into comebacks." Trinity students know a thing or two about survival. More important, however, they reveal the triumph of persistence, very hard work, and the will to change lives for the better. These are stories of unparalleled success through the transformative power of education and the individual will, not simply to survive, but to flourish.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 19, 2009; 9:15 AM ET  | Category:  survival as success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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