Special education student wins $50k essay contest

Submitted by Phil Smith | Published November 2, 2011

I never cease being amazed by the stories that our students sometimes tell us. Stories that we learn about only if we take the time to turn over the rock of their lives, and develop meaningful relationships with them. Stories about lives that we might otherwise never discover.

You may have met one of our department's Graduate Assistants, Andy Gowman. He's quiet and unassuming (he's also got a wicked sense of humor). He knows a lot about computers and technical stuff. He studies hard. He works hard. He asks good questions.

Andy recently entered an essay contest. Titled the "I Can" contest, and sponsored by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, it was for deserving students with big dreams. The contest asked what each entrant would do with $50,000 for his education. So he wrote a brief essay (250 words), and mailed it off.

Well, he won.

In early November, he's headed to Tennessee to pick up his check, representing $50,000 in education funding. He says its one of those huge checks that you see sometimes on TV. He's guessing he'll have to practice his origami paper-folding skills to get it on the plane coming home.

He agreed to let me share his essay entitled,  "I Can" [PDF].

To my mind, his story talks about 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. For some, I suppose, that might sound like no huge thing. For others — well, that's what I'd call a big dream.

He's going to make a pretty swell teacher, I think.

Congratulations to Andy — for his initiative, for his vision, for his awesome writing — and for being a terrific, mild-mannered, hard-working, good-humored Graduate Assistant.

Phil Smith
Interim Department Head, Department of Special education