ORLANDO—It's something we're told from a very young age: Don't judge a book by its cover. Steve Pemberton said that although he was given a life sentence as a child—"not a chance in the world"—he was able to persevere and find his place in the world because certain people in his life chose to look past the picture of a young boy placed into foster care.
Pemberton, a best-selling author, innovative diversity and inclusion thought leader, and acclaimed speaker, gave the keynote address at the opening session of the 2019 NASFAA National Conference, which kicked off in Orlando on Monday.
"I want my life to be an example, an example of a life whom was said ‘not a chance in the world’" @istevepemberton shares how he overcame #adversity to live a life of success & wants to #inspire others to do the same at @nasfaa’s #NASFAA2019. #fachat #highered #financialliteracy— APB Education (@APBEducation) June 24, 2019
He described those influential people in his life, including financial aid administrators later on, as "lighthouses," those who appear "seemingly out of nowhere" in your greatest moment of struggle. Pemberton described his experiences growing up in the foster care system in New Bedford, MA, after being taken from his alcoholic mother at the age of 3. His story—recounted in his memoir A Chance in the World, which was later turned into a movie—details how key people impacted him and changed the trajectory of his life.
A neighbor who noticed his love for reading and gave him new books to read. A spelling bee judge with a warm and encouraging smile. A counselor who believed in him and opened his home.
"That which we do and the passion, the enthusiasm, the care with which we do it does indeed change the arc of lives," he told the crowd of more than 2,200 financial aid professionals. "Sometimes we forget the humanity that is behind the story. So much so that some of us in here … came to Orlando wondering, ‘Is this profession I've chosen having an impact? Am I fundamentally changing and impacting a life?' I think you are."
Pemberton encouraged aid administrators to be "unrelenting" in their belief in students, and to see not the circumstances, but the possibilities that lie within each of them.
Steve Pemberton: I never use terms like "at risk," "underserved," "underrepresented." I have yet to meet a young person who describes themselves that way. So why should we? #NASFAA2019— nasfaa (@nasfaa) June 24, 2019
He reminded them to follow advice NASFAA President Justin Draeger had shared just before, from an Ancient Greek proverb: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."
He told the crowd of how, once he was accepted into Boston College and secured a scholarship to pay for the first two years, he worked with financial aid administrators to ensure he could complete his program.
"I think the financial aid administrators that I connected with, they understood, without me having to say so, just how important it was for me to stay there," he said.
He said the cycle of his parents' lives could have continued were it not for the "lighthouses" who came into his life and set him on a different path—his father, who died young also lost a parent at a young age, and his mother was also the daughter of an alcoholic mother functioning as a single parent with a spouse overseas. But those influential people in his life changed the direction—nurturing his love for reading, encouraging his ambition, helping him navigate getting into and paying for college
Family, he said, is not just a group of people you're born into. It's also "who you find along the way."
"Nobody is more important to me than the people who saw not my first picture, but the fuller narrative," he said.
"You're not impacting a life. You're impacting generations to come," Pemberton said. "Be that unapologetic, unrelenting, unyielding lighthouse. I'm willing to bet someday, one day, a life that you touch and impact is going to come see you, write to you, whisper to you."
Follow along with all that's going on today on Facebook and Twitter using #NASFAA2019 and keep an eye on our 2019 Conference Summaries page for frequent updates throughout the conference.
Publication Date: 6/24/2019