For six years, Simon Wilson fought hard for his dreams, and at Commencement in 2012, he claimed his victory: an undergraduate degree from UIS.
Simon now has a job teaching fifth grade at Butler Elementary, and this past summer, he began a master’s degree in Educational Leadership at UIS.
Not bad for a man who declared in high school:
“I will NEVER go to college. My family is too poor. And even if I did go to college, I would never graduate.”
I met him in his classroom last week, early in the morning before his students arrived.
As we talked, joy radiated almost palpably from him, words tumbling out of him, brimming with confidence.
It’s hard to imagine the darkness he fought through to get here, but fight he did, against formidable odds. Fortunately, he had some help along the way.
Not exactly college bound
Simon comes from a poor family. During middle school, his family had to “double up” with his aunt. His father had found a job out of state, and moving in with Simon’s aunt was the only way Simon’s mother could feed the family.
According to the school system, this meant Simon’s family was homeless.
In his junior year of high school, the family moved into their own home, but financial troubles continued, leading to Simon’s declaration against college.
But Simon loved math and loved helping his classmates and somehow, by the time Simon graduated from high school in 2003, the idea of becoming a teacher had taken root.
When he heard about the MSS program at UIS (Midstate Student Support for Teachers), which helps local students become local teachers, Simon was ready to enlist.
MSS helped him negotiate the application process at Lincoln Land Community College, as well as the placement tests, registration and scheduling (“majors?” “prerequisites?” “syllabus?” “what are those???”).
Simon finished an associate’s degree at Lincoln Land in 2006, and he transferred to UIS, still intending to teach high school math.
This began a six-year odyssey as fraught with obstacles as any Greek hero’s.
A deepening vortex of crisis pressed onto crisis
In May 2005, Simon welcomed the birth of his son, and he willingly added meeting the needs of both his son and his son’s mother to his list of responsibilities. Inevitably, this affected his academic progress.
At UIS, another change confronted him. Simon realized that his heart really belonged in the elementary school, and as so many others had before him, he changed his major to fit his new goal. This further slowed his progress.
The burden of so many expenses, both for school and for his family, weighed him down, and soon Simon was working three jobs—a total of 60 hours a week—all while still trying to attend school fulltime.
Inevitably, his grades began to suffer, but what could he do? He needed those jobs.
The missed classes and failed assignments began adding up, and Simon’s health began to suffer, especially emotionally.
When UIS put him on academic probation, Simon faced the real danger of being kicked out.
What comes next, after academic probation?
In the middle of all this, an email arrived from Tyler Tanaka, a coordinator with the Teacher Education Program.
“We need to talk,” Tyler’s message said, and added that Simon should bring all his records, his bills and his schedule.
Here it comes, Simon thought. I’m in real trouble now.
But in Tyler’s office, Simon received the opposite of a reprimand.
Sitting at a table were four people: Tyler; Dr. Loretta Meeks, at the time the director of the MSS Program; Andy Egizi, coordinator for the Liberal Studies program; and Shane Woods, a staff member from Financial Assistance.
They were all there to help Simon.
Over the next hours, these four professionals helped Simon tackle one problem after another:
- First, they went through the remaining courses Simon needed and helped create a schedule that would have him finishing by 2012.
- Next they pored over Simon’s bills and created a budget for him.
- Then they helped Simon take advantage of community resources that would help Simon meet his expenses.
- And last they reworked Simon’s financial aid package so that his income could finally equal expenditure.
All this meant—best of all—that Simon could back off his work schedule and spend more time working on his degree.
I asked Tyler, who now works at the University of Illinois in Urbana, about the meeting. He said, “We had each met with him separately, advised him, and he had lots of different bits of information. Having him come to our mini-intervention helped us all agree on options for Simon, provided him with a unified and consistent direction, and hopefully showed him we were invested in his success.
“I am so happy to hear about Simon and his success,” Tyler added. “I always knew he would make a fantastic teacher!”
Two scholarships provided crucial support for Simon while at UIS
In 2010, Simon’s financial assistance included the Gary E. and Janice M. Spears Scholarship Fund.
Just as Simon hoped to, Dr. Spears taught elementary school for several years before serving as a school administrator.
Explaining the scholarship, she said, “The education I received at UIS changed my life for the better, forever. I am delighted to have the opportunity to help students achieve their dreams.”
She certainly did that for Simon!
Simon also received the Micah and Peggy Bartlett—MSS Program Scholarship. Like Simon, Micah was a first-generation student. In 2008, Micah and his wife Peggy attended an MSS class and were so impressed with the students’ commitment and drive that they created a scholarship for students in the program.
“These scholarships provided LIFE to me,” Simon says. “I had enough for tuition, but the scholarships helped with all the costs of everyday life and that made all the difference.”
Two promises made and fulfilled
In 2012, Simon graduated and worked the next year as a teacher’s assistant. In 2013, he accepted his position at Butler Elementary, where he’s entering his third year.
He had promised himself at graduation that after working a few years he would start a master’s program at UIS. He fulfilled that promise this past summer. “Change happens,” he says. “I need to stay up to date so that I can offer the best to my students.”
The previous August, Simon fulfilled another promise:
The man whose family had once been homeless purchased a house for his parents.
“They needed some stability in their lives,” he says. “I could provide that, so I did.”
Better even than he imagined
Simon loves teaching. He says he grows every day because of his students, and he starts each day asking, How can I help my students succeed today?
It took Simon six years to finish UIS, six long, hard-fought years, but he knows that his students can make it, too, especially if they receive the kind of help Simon did from caring faculty and staff and from such generous scholarship donors.
Prominently displayed in Simon’s room are his diplomas, his graduation robe and pennants from both Lincoln Land and UIS.
“Here it is, students,” he tells his class, pointing to the display. “This is success in the making.”