Scotty Rushing is no stranger to the concept of beating the odds. He has worked as a sports agent and written about poker, and his wife is a former jockey who now trains horses. Indeed, Rushing’s own journey toward a college education could be described as a tale of overcoming obstacles and ignoring the odds.
He chose to return to school in his mid-40s, just a handful of years after he lost his job and home and was forced to live for a while in his car. “I decided that something like this was never going to happen to me again,” Rushing says.
Since enrolling in Florida Institute of Technology’s Associate of Arts in Applied Psychology program, offered 100% online, Rushing has been honored for his academic achievements by the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts. He also was inducted recently into the international honor society Psi Chi.
Rushing is scheduled to graduate with his AA in the fall of 2014 and plans to continue his education. As he completed his final classes at Florida Tech, Rushing decided it finally was time to open up about another challenge he has overcome. About three years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I never told anyone at Florida Institute of Technology,” he wrote on his blog in July. “I did not want to allow even the slightest possibility that I would be treated any differently than any other student.”
“I didn’t want what I was doing to seem heroic; it is not.”
We spoke with Rushing recently about the choices and circumstances that led him back to school and put him on the path toward a new career.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am 46 years old and hail from Louisiana, where my wife, Sharon, and I live and work on a 60-acre thoroughbred farm. Sharon is a former professional jockey and I am a former sports agent. We met on the racetrack and horseracing is still a big part of our lives. Sharon trains horses and we have 20 or so on the farm at all times, in addition to a variety of pets, most of which are rescues.
My upbringing was very modest. That’s a nice way of saying my family was very poor. I was an only child raised by a single mom and a loving grandmother. From an early age I excelled in school, but as I grew older my academic work ethic just deteriorated. A lot of people would blame that on a lack of interest or insufficient stimulation. It is very fashionable today to lay blame on society, teachers and parents for our personal failures. The fact is, I just became a lazy student and didn’t push myself to succeed. When I graduated from high school I was offered a full ride at the University of Texas by the band department. I turned it down. My reason for doing so was that I didn’t want to spend lovely autumn Saturdays in an NCAA football stadium for the next four years. Not taking that scholarship is probably my biggest regret. Moving forward in my life necessitated taking ownership of my mistakes and failures, and I realize now that success is my responsibility.
Q. Why did you decide to advance your education through a degree program offered online?
In 2005, I encountered a situation that many people have faced. A job I had held for several years, one that I thought would employ me indefinitely, came to an end with no warning. … No notice, no severance pay, no options. I had always lived paycheck-to-paycheck and worked in fields that required little specialized skill (the job I mentioned was as a dispatcher and driver for a transportation company). There were unemployment benefits for a little while, but these ran out and I suddenly found myself looking for work in a very poor job market. Within a short period of time I lost my home and was forced to live in my Ford Taurus. To complicate matters, I was raising my 13-year-old daughter by myself. We went days with little or nothing to eat and no place to rest our head. My daughter had to go and live with her mother. It was a heartbreaking experience.
Among the few possessions I had left was a tattered copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. A passage from that book became my personal motto. Thoreau wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” I decided that something like this was never going to happen to me again. I was going to return to school and make a conscious endeavor to repair and elevate my life.
Q. Why did you choose Florida Tech’s online program?
Well, it was sort of an accident and a great story. I had been researching some online programs and filling out the forms requesting more information. Truthfully, I had forgotten the schools I had requested information from. Then, on New Year’s Eve of 2012, my phone rang. I typically don’t even answer if I don’t recognize the number, but I did this time. The lady calling was Terry Marlow from University Alliance. To this day, I still tell everyone that Terry Marlow changed my life. She talked to me about my goals, I shared my story, and Terry literally gave me no room to escape! She answered every objection and concern. I was convinced I couldn’t get financial aid. Terry said, “Let’s try anyway.” I was worried about my ability to succeed. Terry said, “We’re going to help you succeed.” By the time we ended our conversation, I was actually in the process of submitting my transcripts and getting registered for Spring II 2013. Over the next few months, Terry was there at every step of the process. I still communicate with her. So, to be totally honest, University Alliance and Florida Tech chose to believe in me, and I am glad they did.
Q. What has surprised you most about taking an online program?
The quality of the instruction has been amazing. I was quite surprised by that. In my very first term the psychology professor who taught my class worked for NASA. That really made me sit up and take notice. This is for real. The environment is different, but the quality is exactly the same as what you would experience in a traditional classroom on campus.
Q. What has been your favorite class?
Well, I love writing. Even though psychology is my major and I have enjoyed all of those classes, my favorite was probably “Writing about Literature.” I had a wonderful professor, Dr. Amy Green, who also did the lectures for the online class. She made the material interesting and always offered detailed feedback on my assignments. The funny thing is that at the beginning of class I was terrified. Dr. Green is highly regarded and I questioned my ability to deliver work that would meet her standard. You really want a professor like that, one that you respect and maybe is even a little intimidating, because they always inspire you to do your best. So, “Writing about Literature” was probably my favorite, but there have been so many. Every class has been a great experience.
Q. What obstacles did you have to overcome when deciding to return to school?
My homelessness was my major obstacle. I was able to recover quickly in some aspects – about six months after I lost my home I was working again – but it takes a while to really get on your feet. I had to be somewhat settled before I could begin classes. I also think that anyone my age has to overcome the challenge of self-doubt. Will I be able to keep up? Can I get the grades? Learning how to keep myself focused and positive was important.
Q. You have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. How has that affected your educational journey?
To be entirely truthful, the MS is part of the reason I began my educational journey. I guess you could say I have MS to thank, at least in some way, for going back to school. I would be lying, though, if I didn’t acknowledge some difficult patches as I’ve gone through my classes. For one entire term I struggled with optic neuritis as a result of MS. The vision in my right eye was severely limited and I developed a serious strain in the left eye by trying to compensate. I’ve been affected by spasticity, which is a type of stiffness and accompanying muscle spasms that makes it hard to sit at the computer for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
So, yes, there have been challenges. The biggest one may have been a palpable sense of loneliness. I purposely chose not to reveal my diagnosis outside of my immediate family and I stuck by that throughout school. I didn’t want to feel like I was treated differently than any other student or to be perceived as handicapped. I really needed to talk about it but I didn’t, not even with my family. I became depressed and on July 4 of this year everything sort of crashed down on me. I reached out to Dr. Amy Green [at Florida Tech] and we talked about it. Dr. Green was the first person I told outside of my family and I felt 100 pounds lighter. She kind of gave me the courage I needed to make it public and since I was in my final term at Florida Tech I chose to do that.
If I had to take the experience as a whole, I would say being diagnosed with MS was actually a positive. It inspired me to do a lot of things that I had always wanted to do, and I also accept and own the responsibility that comes with having this kind of disease. I really believe those of us that have MS are obligated to encourage others with illnesses and disabilities by setting a good example. MS is not a death sentence. MS is just a blip on the radar screen.
Q. What are your professional and personal goals once you graduate?
Professionally, I would ultimately like to teach. I enjoy the academic environment. My goal is to complete my undergraduate studies and move on toward a higher degree that will enable me to teach at the college level. Personally, I want to find ways to assist other adults in returning to school. Sharon and I have discussed starting a charitable or scholarship foundation that would strive to help people that have circumstances similar to the ones I had. I want to be a voice for online education. I really believe that personal achievements have the most value when those achievements become the inspiration for someone else to succeed. Helping other people make their own conscious endeavor is important to me.
Q. What advice would you give other students who are considering enrolling in the program?
Take every preconception you have about going back to school and set it aside. Give yourself a chance without trying to talk yourself out of it. Be willing to accept help. This is very important. We are all proud. I had to be willing to surrender some of that self-pride and let my advisers help me through the process. Be willing to bet on yourself. No one else can make your conscious endeavor for you. Conscious means that you are awake and taking action. Don’t put it off.
Q. Who or what inspires you to succeed?
So many people inspire me to succeed. If I had to choose one at this precise moment I would probably say Amy Purdy. She lost her legs to meningitis and answered that challenge by winning a bronze medal as a snowboarder in the Paralympics. Then she competed on “Dancing with the Stars” and placed second. Second! With prosthetic feet! Let that sink in. Whenever I get tired or find the coursework to be challenging, I think of Amy Purdy and others like her who have succeeded despite overwhelming obstacles. … Those stories are all around. The world is really this remarkable well of inspiration if only we are willing to drink.
Q. What is one fun fact about you?
I am a musician and played in several bands when I was younger. I still write songs and one of my goals is to produce an independent recording of original material.