Long range goals with laser focus

In May 2013, David received a PhD at Ivy League Penn (University of Pennsylvania). His goal was to get his doctorate before he turned 30. TODAY IS HIS 30TH BIRTHDAY!

David birthday

During the course of his high school, undergraduate and graduate school experiences, David shared some specific long-range goals and then focused on them like a laser.

High School Graduation goal set freshman year

At the end of the his first high school semester, the school published a preliminary “Top 25” list of students in each class. Of course, I was proud and offering praise. With over 500 in his class, he surprised me and I (probably) brushed aside a comment he shared as we discussed that list:

I will graduate #1 in this class. 

The result: At graduation, David was ranked #1 as one of three with a perfect grade point. His valedictory address had the audience laughing and the podium officials squirming when he continued past his approved remarks to share his “Top 10 Things I l Learned in High School”.

Goal pursuit:

  • Always did the extra credit anyway.
  • Considered his academic efforts and time applying for scholarships his “part-time job” that would pay off when time to go to college.

Top-tier college goal set early

David only applied to one college – Duke University. I had never paid attention to terms like “top-tier” related to college until I started asking about his choice and reasons for it. Duke claims to admit students from the top 1% nationally. All I knew about Duke was how much I hated that school for their last second NCAA semi-final defeat of the University of Kentucky (my school) in 1991. I had no idea how expensive it was or how hard it was to get into. When I asked, “Why Duke?”, his answer was:

I’m tired of being the geek. I’m tired of ruining the curve. I’m tired of everybody being angry at me for doing all the extra credit anyway. I want to go where it is okay to be an achiever.

At least part of his reasoning was that his extremely high SAT score was just slightly above “average” there. Duke asked him to sign a binding “Early Decision” contract in September of his high school senior year. When I balked at the price, they said, “If we decide we want him, we will get him here.” They didn’t make it easy, but they made it possible.

Our 4-yr expense was about what it would have cost to send him to an in-state state school.

College career goal set freshman year

In the introductory meeting for the parents of the 1500 freshmen, 500 of whom were high school valedictorians, the official warned,

Most of you have students who were at the top of their classes in high school. We want to prepare you for the fact that half of them will be average here.

The confident response when we shared that with David was,

I will not be average. 

The result: David graduated in the top 1% ( one A- in 4yrs) of his class and gave one of two commencement addresses at the English Department’s ceremony.

Goal pursuit:

  • When possible, re-did any work that wasn’t an “A” until it was.
  • Expected and asked for feedback on anything graded less than perfect.
  • Always signed up for and visited more classes than he could end up taking and then picked the best classes with the best professors.

PhD goal set at undergraduate graduation

After introducing me to one of his English professors at the reception following his departmental graduation ceremony, commenting on the distinguished cap that the professor wore, David pronounced his next goal:

I will have my doctorate before I’m 30. 

Goal pursuit:

  • Scheduled times for reading/writing dissertation – treated it like a job
  • Persevered when requested support and feedback was lacking

The result: got his PhD in May and turns 30 TODAY!

Happy Birthday David!

The beginning of formal education, kindergarten 1988-89
The beginning of formal education, kindergarten 1988-89
Valedictorian Speech, Huntington North High School, 2001
Valedictorian Speech, Huntington North High School, 2001
Duke commencement address, "Finding our Porpoise:. 2005
Duke commencement address, “Finding our Porpoise”:. 2005

Duke English Dept Newsletter with Gardner Commencement Address

Click the pic to see the entire letter with the commencent address.
Click the pic to see the entire letter with the commencement address.
The end of formal education. Doctoral Graduation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013
The end of formal education. Doctoral Graduation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013
PhD Diploma, (in Latin), University of Pennsylvania, 2013
PhD Diploma, (in Latin), University of Pennsylvania, 2013

After teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Rosemont College and City College of Philadelphia, next month, David begins his new assignment at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s top boarding schools.  Started during the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere designed the school’s seal, John Hancock signed the Articles of Incorporation and George Washington gave a speech on campus. Both presidents Bush went to school there.

Dr. David, your story should be an encouragement to all students from families of modest means as you have demonstrated that “Good Grades Do Pay” and that, even though families of privilege have an unfair advantage, determination and perseverance can break through a lot of barriers.

We love you, we’re proud of you, we find you inspiring — and we can’t wait to hear your next goal.

Mom and Dad.


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