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Best & Brightest: Told He Lacked the “Intellectual Capacity” To Learn, Ph.D Candidate Proves Otherwise

Markell Harrison-Jackson grew up with a self-destructive combination of uncontrollable anger and learning inability.

His father murdered his mother when he was two years old. He then spent the rest of his childhood in more than 40 foster care homes in New York where he was told he had a learning disability, that he did not have the intellectual capacity to obtain a college degree and that he was seriously emotionally disturbed.

“I was walking around as a youngster angry at the world,” says Jackson, adding that his father was the source of his rage.

At the age of 18, when he had to leave the foster care system, he had a decision to make: either he’d prove folks right, or wrong. He decided on the latter; forgave his father, enrolled in community college and poured those raging waters of anger into a well of motivation.

“I have been hungry to obtain knowledge,” he says. “I have worked all my life to prove folks wrong.”

And, he has.

Jackson, 32, is now a doctoral candidate in global leadership with a specialization in educational leadership at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Jackson “decided early on that he was going to be one of those kids who would overcome the obstacles and not allow his past to define his destiny,” says Dr. Jill Levenson, a professor and human resources department chair at Lynn University. “He recognized that he could make choices that would facilitate a path to success and he was able to do that.”

Jackson’s dissertation, which he hopes to defend in April, is titled: “Predicting the Educational Achievements of Young Adults who Were Formerly Placed in Foster Care.” The purpose of this study is to investigate the relationships among demographic attributes, types of child maltreatment, risk factors (including the number of foster care placements and youth criminal activity) and protective factors (including placement stability) with the foster care alumni adults’ academic achievements, Jackson says.

“His topic of interest, which is resilience of foster children, is so important to him,” says Levenson, the chair of Jackson’s dissertation committee. “In terms of helping kids in maltreating families or chaotic families to succeed, it is important for us to identify through research what are the factors that produce success. And then we can try to create situations whereby social workers can facilitate those factors.”

Even at the doctoral level, Jackson has continued to prove people wrong. After completing his coursework, his program coordinator told him that he didn’t have the writing skills necessary to complete the qualifying paper that would show that he had the ability to write a dissertation.

Jackson says he had never learned the fundamentals of the writing process. And he was not prepared at the master’s level because for his two master’s degrees — an MBA from Florida Metropolitan University and a master’s of science in special education from Canisius College — he did not have to write a thesis. But not being prepared had never stopped him before.

He decided to use all his time to work on the qualifying paper, so he quit his job at a charter school and began to live off his savings.

Then, he lost his apartment when Hurricane Wilma hit.

For the next three months, Jackson slept in his car and spent 18 hours per day with a writing coach who guided him as he wrote and rewrote his qualifying paper until finally it was accepted in November of 2006.

“During this dissertation phase a lot of past rejection feelings have resurfaced and are linked to some of the bad things that happen in my childhood,” he says. “I think it is the nature of the dissertation process; sometimes you get a 70-page proposal with 46 pages returned with red lines through them. Or you get your proposal returned with nasty track marks and comments that make you want to cry. In the past 5 years my skin has thickened.”

As his skin has thickened towards criticism, his feelings have softened towards his father over the past five years.

When he had that life-changing decision to make upon leaving the foster care system, Jackson says that he “had no one to turn to but” his father.

“I remember our first conversation,” Jackson says. “I told him everything that was on my mind. We talked for hours. I must admit he has been the driving for me in my life since we met.”

Since that first meeting, Jackson’s father has attended all of his graduations. His father has helped him relocate to different states. Most recently when he was homeless, his father paid for his storage fees and car payment for a few months. He also co-signed on a signature loan so Jackson could complete his dissertation research.

“A few years ago I started to call him ‘Dad,’” Jackson says. “He remains my only family member. In fact, his number is the only I have had since being emancipated from care in 1992. Today, he is my father.”

In addition to working on his dissertation, Jackson is currently in the process of applying to the New Leaders for New Schools urban principals training program, so he can become a high school principal while teaching part time at a university. Jackson says he’s also looking to move into the field of educational or social welfare policy.

As he’s placed himself on this career path, he hopes his faith and his ability to forgive continue to propel him like they did during his turbulent years as a youngster.

“From dealing with my father over years I have learned about forgiveness,” he says. “My faith has also been unparalleled through this process. Sometimes my faith was tested but I have remained faithful and resilient like my father did for all the years he was incarcerated.”

–Ibram Rogers


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