Graduate: Having people who believe in me has made all the difference

  Thursday, May 7, 2015 2:00 AM

Pittsburg, KS

Graduate: Having people who believe in me has made all the difference

“Having people who believe in me has made all the difference,” said David Schlee, his voice filling with emotion.

Schlee will walk with his fellow students in Pittsburg State University’s College of Arts and Sciences on Friday to receive a bachelor’s degree in biology. He will return on Saturday to walk with the College of Education to receive his degree in exercise science. He also has a minor in chemistry.

This is a day, Schlee said, that seemed unimaginable not long ago.

“Never in a million years,” Schlee said of his prospects of becoming a college graduate.

For most of his childhood, Schlee was on a very different path than he is today. He grew up in the inner city in Kansas City, Mo., and although both of his parents were college-educated professionals, Schlee never had much interest in school.

“I was always the guy who was smart, but never applied himself,” Schlee said. “I was a very apathetic person.”

As a young teen, he hung out with the wrong crowd. There were suspensions and the daily grind of high school became increasingly intolerable. Midway through his sophomore year, Schlee dropped out.

To earn money, Schlee got a job in a restaurant. He found the business interesting and even imagined going to culinary school, but soon discovered that without a high school diploma, his life was going to be a series of dead-end jobs.

It was economics that initially drove Schlee to earn his GED and then to explore the possibility of going on to earn a college degree. He attended a PITT CARES advisement and enrollment session at PSU, his father’s alma mater, and left thinking PSU might be the right choice. He made the decision on the ride home.

“I figured I needed to get out of my comfort zone and do something new,” Schlee said. “It seemed like a way to make a fresh start.”

Initially, Schlee was interested in something related to physical education or even physical therapy. He settled on the new exercise science program because he had always had an interest in science.

Well on his way to earning that degree, Schlee discovered a new passion in a general biology course.

“I was just blown away by this stuff,” Schlee said.

Then came an anatomy and physiology course.

“I was learning about all of these tiny physiological things,” Schlee said. “This was really cool stuff I was learning. I thought that it was amazing!”

Virginia Rider, Schlee’s adviser in the Biology Department, said it was clear Schlee had found his special interest.

“He got interested in the material,” Rider said. “He was one of the best students I had in Development and it’s a really hard class.”

Schlee had discovered the joy of learning. Something else was happening, too.

“I’ve changed a lot in school,” Schlee said. “I was not an outgoing person. I’ve figured out I really like people and I like helping people. Maybe it is a little more maturity.”

One of the Pitt State experiences that had a big impact on Schlee was accompanying PSU Biology Professor Mandy Peak on a trip to work in a clinic in Peru in the summer of 2013.

Seeing the children in the orphanage was like a slap in the face, said Schlee, who was born in Korea and adopted by his American parents when he was just a few months old.

“I was an orphan,” Schlee said. “I could have been left in the street. I cried a lot there in the orphanage.”

Schlee has been accepted into the master’s in public health program at the University of Kansas and hopes to earn admission to medical school. Wherever life takes him, he said, he knows he wants to return to the inner city to make a difference in the lives of kids just like him.

As he prepares to leave campus, which, Schlee said, is harder than he expected it would be, he has a lot of people to thank.

“All the support I’ve had here on campus has been amazing,” Schlee said. “I can’t begin to thank everyone. The faculty have been great.”

As he imagines walking across the stage to receive his diploma, Schlee feels an emotion that for most of his life was absent.

“I worry that I’ve disappointed my parents sometimes,” Schlee said, pausing for long seconds. “I’m amazed to be here and I’m so proud of myself. Never in a million years...”



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