It was the spring of 1980 and I was 10 months old—a young family consisting of my mother, father, cousin, and myself decided to take a trip to the store. It was a beautiful spring day: Fleetwood Mac was playing on the radio, the windows were down, and the wind was blowing through our hair. A beautiful day turned tragic when our car was struck by a reckless driver. My mother suffered severe injuries to her head, my cousin was paralyzed, and my father died. I, on the other hand, did not have a scratch on me. In fact, when the paramedics found me under the passenger side seat, I wasn’t even crying. That day has had a lasting impact on my life and the lives of the people I help today.
I was raised by a single mother in Temperance, Michigan, a small town just south of Detroit. We had become displaced after a fire ripped through our apartment complex forcing us to live in our car. To make matters worse, our car broke down, making it much more difficult for my mother to find work.
It should come as no surprise that concentrating in school became difficult, and I was held back in second grade. Parent-teacher conferences left me feeling like a horrible child. Desperate to fix me, my mother took me to the doctor even though she couldn’t afford it. I remember the doctor looking at me and asking what was wrong. How does a second grader answer that?
After being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, I spent my second tour in second grade between “regular classes” and “special classes.” I was constantly reminded of my reading comprehension learning disability and began to slip deeper into academic hopelessness. My classmates constantly taunted me after they found out I was placed in special education. Teachers also had a negative impact on my self-confidence by saying things like, “He’s a problem child.” One can imagine the impact that has on a child who is being conditioned into believing he is worthless.
Just before graduating high school, a teacher of mine asked me what my plans were. I explained to him that I would like to eventually graduate law school and prosecute sex crimes. He had the same traditional concerns for “being realistic” that many of his colleagues had. His response was, “Maybe you should be a busboy.” I eventually graduated high school in 1999 with a 1.4 GPA ranked 361 out of 367 students, and just like that, the school system was done with me. My future was not very well-defined, and the chronic frustration of knowing that no support was there for me after graduation meant that a miserable future loomed over my head.
I am currently entering my second year in my doctoral program in Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. I have worked extremely hard to reach this level of education, and although I am resilient, I cannot take all of the credit for my success. I have received a great deal of support from individuals who challenged their mental models of who they think I am and replaced them with who I am capable of being.
Important to my success have been individuals who believed in me while providing resources and guidance on both an academic and personal level. Jennifer Johnston, USD alumni and Marriage and Family Therapist, has provided moral support by continuously reframing my self-perceived negative situation and turning it into a positive. Currently she provides counseling support to special needs families and has been an invaluable resource for finding resources in the community. She has also tutored me throughout my graduate level programs. Dr. John Mosby, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions, has seen beyond my “flaws” and into my heart. Dr. Mosby has introduced me to many of the individuals who make up USD’s community who have worked in collaboration toward my success as a student and professional. Dr. Athena Perrakis, a personal friend and Professor of Leadership Studies at USD, has provided deep spiritual support. USD’s Director of Residential Life, Nicki Schussler, encouraged me to continue to follow my dreams. These allies provided the type of support, role modeling, unconditional love, and compassion necessary to help me cope with the insecurities and other shadows I have developed as a result of years of oppressive conditioning.
I recently developed a small business called Advocates For Empowerment, which provides special education and service advocacy to individuals with special needs. My mission is to provide advocacy services that mirror the type of supports that allowed me to become academically successful. It is my belief that with these types of supports, marginalized individuals, groups, and communities can combat oppression and become empowered. In an attempt to empower women, we are teaming up with Athena Perrakis and other individuals to develop a seminar for women on empowerment and self advocacy. As a result of being raised by a single mother, who herself was oppressed, I have a strong passion and desire to help women discover their strengths in overcoming adversity. Although I knew I always wanted to help others, Advocates for Empowerment was developed only after I felt my life had purpose. I am here to empower others to reach their full potential.
Corey Pahanish is a current doctoral student at the University of San Diego studying Leadership Studies and the founder of Advocates for Empowerment. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice, a paralegal certificate, and a Master of Arts Degree in Leadership Studies. He has also successfully completed the Special Education Advocacy Certificate Program at the University of San Diego’s Department of Continuing Education and has eight years experience in the field of social services.