by Geoff Larcom, Published November 16, 2011
Andy Gowman attended a private school from kindergarten through second grade. The school emphasized learning through hands-on artistic exploration.
But when his parents transferred him to a public school in third grade, learning issues began to surface. By the end of fourth grade, it was clear. He couldn't really read, and math was a major struggle for this painfully shy youngster.
He was placed in a special education track that emphasized face-to-face instruction, smaller classes and a slower pace. There he found a variety of helpful, inspiring teachers who hastened his development.
The path had its bumps, including a rugged patch in eighth grade. Yet by 10th grade Gowman was, in his words, "finally getting things." By his junior year, he was at the 11th grade level in all of his subjects and was no longer classified as having a learning disability.
The special teachers who ensured that steady and impressive progress left a profound impression on Gowman, now a student in the elementary education portion of Eastern's Special Education Masters with Teaching Certification program.
So when his girlfriend, Amy, first saw the poster in a Dollar General Store last summer for its "I Can" Literacy Foundation contest that offers a $50,000 grand prize for deserving students with big dreams, Gowman had a vivid history to draw upon.
The contest asked what entrants would do with $50,000 to further their education. So Gowman wrote a brief essay (250 words), and mailed it off.
"I remember my life when I could not read," Gowman wrote, in part. "It was a frustrating and confusing place. When words finally starting coming together for me in the fifth grade, it was like the sun had finally risen on my horizon and lifted the darkness from my eyes.
"Literacy is the foundation from which knowledge comes forth. I commit my future career to serving students in any capacity I can so that they too can live in a bright and literate world ripe with opportunity. "
Professor Phil Smith, interim department head of the EMU Department of Special Education, says the essay notes what special education, at its best, offers to students with disabilities.
"It also talks about Andy's commitment to 'paying forward' what he received, by helping another generation of students with big dreams who are struggling to reach them," Smith says. "For some, I suppose, that might sound like no huge thing. For others, well, that's what I'd call a big dream.
"Andy's going to make a pretty swell teacher, I think."
The essay's passion and sense of purpose impressed the judges. A month later, Gowman received an email noting he'd been awarded the $50,000 grand prize and a flight down to Nashville, Tennessee.
He is very grateful for the financial assistance this reward will provide, which eliminates half of his student loan debt. He started at Eastern in 2010 and expects to graduate in the spring of 2013, with a focus on cognitive impairment.
He hopes to work in a general education classroom that combines regular and special ed students, or in a resource room, similar to where he received such beneficial help.
In particular, Gowman credits Sue Sandtveit, his elementary and high school special education teacher, and David Pontzious, his economics and psychology teacher at Dondero High School.
Now, he can't wait to return and share details of his plans and recent success.
"It's going to be great to go back and tell my old teachers," he says.
Gowman's winning essay is below.
"With an educational grant, I can fund my special education degree to pursue my dream of helping academically challenged children overcome obstacles with literacy, writing, and mathematics. I have an affinity for students who struggle to learn. I had a rough educational experience myself.
"I battled illiteracy throughout my childhood. In the fourth grade I could barely read or write. I was evaluated and labeled with a learning disability. The next year I was placed into special education. In this setting I was paired up with exceptional teachers who provided me with the personalized instruction I needed to overcome my cognitive struggle. As I progressed through middle and high school my special education services continued to decrease until I was eventually declassified as having a learning disability in the 11th grade.
"Currently, I am a 4.0 graduate student at a Michigan university. I am diligently working my way through school with escalating student loan debt to cultivate my pedagogical techniques and pursue my career aspirations.
"I remember my life when I could not read. It was a frustrating and confusing place. When words finally starting coming together for me in the fifth grade, it was like the sun had finally risen on my horizon and lifted the darkness from my eyes.
"Literacy is the foundation for which knowledge comes forth. I commit my future career to serving students in any capacity I can so that they too can live in a bright and literate world ripe with opportunity."