Perseverance toward Success
Date: April 26, 2014
Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to thank Dr. Mei for inviting me to speak today. I’ve attended many McNair events like this one but have never actually spoken at one before. I’d also like to congratulate each of you on graduating this year. I consider myself to be from a small town, Clendenin, West Virginia about 20 miles outside of Charleston. The truth is though, that my family moved quite a bit when I was younger; I went to a grand total of 13 primary and secondary schools during my childhood. Some in Tennessee, but mostly in various towns in West Virginia.
When I was 5 months old, my father was killed in a car accident along with my uncle – his brother. My mom had to raise me as a single mother and did her best, but there was very little stability for me as a child. We were also very poor throughout my childhood.
However, there were things that were very stable in my life: my mom and my grandma – who often lived with my mom and I – instilled in me the idea that I could be something much more than what my environment made of me. Throughout early childhood, I was what some would term a “bookworm.” Other kids thought I was a bit strange since I enjoyed reading, non-fiction the most…books like the nearly 2,000-page Encyclopedia of Astronomy (which I still have somewhere). And no, we didn’t have the Internet back in those times for those of you who are wondering.
At the age of 7, I was also blessed by the birth of my sister, Stephanie (now one of two younger sisters I have). Although I was a bit angry at first because I thought she stole my birthday – my birthday is June 1st and hers is May 31st – she helped add a great deal to my educational success. I loved teaching her new things that I learned and it motivated me even more to learn and to teach others what I discovered.
During my high school years after I turned 15, I started living exclusively with my grandma. This allowed me my first real taste of a stable home life. And it was in these years that I began truly considering going to college. I wasn’t sure what my major would be, so I spent my time in high school trying to figure that out. At first, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, then a lawyer, then a microbiologist.
However, I didn’t quite understand I could go to college right out of high school without established financial support. I didn’t know about grants for low income people and didn’t have enough confidence that I could win scholarships, so I took a year off right after high school and worked to build up enough money to enroll at WVU.
By the time I applied, I had settled on economics as a major. But since I took that year off, people began to wonder if I actually had the intent of going to college. And in traditional West Virginia fashion, my mom and grandma wanted me to stay local, so they were a bit disappointed when I decided to attend WVU instead of the University of Charleston or even Marshall which was closer.
After my first couple years at WVU, I also decided to major in political science so that I would have a double major when I graduated. I really had no thoughts about any education beyond my bachelor’s degree at the time until a friend brought to my attention: an advertisement for something called the McNair Scholars Program and suggested I apply. I was intrigued since I had really not thought about getting a PhD or even an MA until that point. In fact, oddly enough, I didn’t even really know what an MA or PhD were. Growing up, I had never really heard of them before.
So after some investigation into graduate education, I decided that I absolutely wanted to go to graduate school. I didn’t want it only for increased salary or the prestige associated with a graduate degree. What drove my interest in grad school was my thirst for knowledge and love for research. As a first step toward getting into grad school, I decided to take my friend’s suggestion and apply to the McNair Scholars Program. Dr. Mei, Anita Mayer, and Eunice Rohrer interviewed me for the program and, fortunately, I got in.
I fondly remember the cultural trips, the great people in my cohort, the events, and of course the etiquette class. My McNair research project was on zoning in Monongalia County and whether and how it affects property values. I enjoyed every minute of working with my McNair Faculty Mentor in the Economics Department, Dr. Brian Cushing. The McNair research project exposed me not only to the real work involved in doing research, but also cemented my love of research and my decision to obtain a PhD.
After my first year as an economics PhD student, I decided that rather than take my career on a pure economics path, I would rather pursue a PhD in political science and apply economic analysis to political behavior. So, I applied to the PhD program in political science and switched programs. This turned out to be a better fit for my interests and I hit the ground running that second year. I was very happy with my decision. I met lots of people who had compatible interests with me and was able to make some great friends as a result.
In political science, we had to take 3 comprehensive exams in different substantive areas of the discipline. The first was in general politics, the second in policy analysis, and the third was in an area of your choosing so I chose political behavior. I will warn you…these exams were probably the toughest exams I’ve ever had. They were closed book, closed note exams and you had to stay in the political science department for 8 hours and complete them by choosing 4 of 10 questions provided to you by your exam committee and writing an essay response (with citations) to each question that was at least 4 pages long. The toughest part was that the exam committee could ask anything about the exam topic, so you really needed to study everything you’ve ever learned all over again for the first general exam.
After I completed all my coursework and all 3 exams, I began writing my dissertation prospectus. It was at this time I made a very badly-timed decision by moving back to the Charleston area to be around my family while I completed my dissertation. When I did so, I got distracted by family, friends, and became pre-occupied with starting a career a little too early. As a result, my dissertation was significantly delayed. I began to wonder if I would give up so late in the game. After realizing I needed to concentrate on my education again, I decided to make a sudden move back to Morgantown and refocus my efforts. One of the first people to help me pick up where I left off again was none other than Dr. Mei. Shortly thereafter, I started working as a full-time student worker for the IRB here at WVU. The position was only supposed to last for 2 months, but I’ve been there ever since and am happy to say that I’m staff there now and intend to remain there for the foreseeable future. Now, I’m more than excited and proud to say that I will be graduating with my PhD in a couple of weeks. I feel that it’s been a long road, but I’ve finally made it.
In closing, I’d like to again congratulate each of you who will be graduating. If you haven’t already applied or been accepted to grad school, please work on attending in the near future. Grad school is challenging, but it’s definitely worth the reward. Getting your PhD is even more important for people like you and I who’ve come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope that I’ve been an inspiration for my two younger sisters and I hope that each and every one of you become beacons of hope for your families and others.
Thank you. Jonathan Young, PhD
Note: Dr. Jonathan Young currently works as Human Research Protections Program Administrator at the Office of Research Integrity and Compliance at West Virginia University