Obstacles and Challenges
By Rosalie Evans, Professor, Capitol Technology University
Mikhail Gorbachev has been out of the public eye for years, but he turned up in Capitol Technology University's English Communications I class this semester, along with such unlikely companions as Elon Musk, Woodie Flowers, and the Dalai Lama. These folks were just a few of the subjects students selected for their final research paper on the obstacles and challenges that life presents.
Often, it seems to the casual observer that successful people get all the breaks. As the students shared the results of their research into the lives of these famous business executives, scientists, and Nobel Prize winners, there was surprise at the hardships, discrimination, financial setbacks, and political battles their subjects had endured.
We defined “obstacles” as barriers to success and achievement imposed by the outer world. Obstacles could be physical limitations such as the ALS with which Steven Hawking was diagnosed at 21, and which has ultimately robbed him of everything but his mind; or the racially motivated hatred directed towards Ruby Bridges, the little black girl in pigtails in the iconic painting by Norman Rockwell. As the first black child to enter a white school in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, Ruby appeared small but determined as she walked behind her two U.S. Marshal escorts. The students who wrote about Hawking and Bridges concluded that they overcame their obstacles and were strengthened by the fight, not defeated.
“Challenges” we agreed, were self-chosen, not imposed. Challenges were the driving force behind many surprising achievements, seemingly unpredictable from the subject’s starting point. Observers were often indignant at unpopular goals voiced by the subjects in their early years. For example, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, popular TV personality and astrophysicist, was criticized for going into physics instead of becoming part of the fight for civil rights. Shinya Yamanaka, Nobel Prize-winning scientist in stem cell research, found his chosen field of study unpopular with colleagues and universities. Funding was hard to come by as the topic was controversial and the work was difficult. Students found that these challenges did not discourage Tyson and Yamanaka, who both succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations.
Gender issues were challenges for two of the subjects studied. Meg Whitman, current CEO of HP and former CEO of Ebay, was born in the 1950s, when women were expected to go to college merely to get their “MRS” degree. Whitman’s challenge was to prove that she could work harder and longer and smarter than her male counterparts. Fortunately, that was not difficult for Whitman and her steady march up the corporate hierarchy has left many male colleagues in the dust. Malala Yousfazi’s path to success was not so easy. The 17-year-old school girl and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year was the target of gender-related religious extremism that left her near death. Shot in the head by the Taliban on a school bus in Pakistan, the courageous young woman recovered and carried her battle across the world for the right of Muslim women and girls to an education.
Our students have already overcome significant obstacles in being accepted at Capitol. The challenge of earning a college degree is one they have taken on willingly. Meeting that challenge will depend on determination, courage, and a reliable alarm clock to wake them for early classes.