Nev­er Tell Me The Odds

JESSICA WILLIAMS

Strate­gic

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions major at OSU.

If you find hap­pi­ness you need to hold on to it because it is nev­er guar­an­teed that it will last.”

 

Shane Hoff­man, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, seems to be a nor­mal mem­ber of the fac­ul­ty. His his­to­ry, on the oth­er hand, is an inspir­ing sto­ry to be told.

Hoff­man grew up in a small town in New Mex­i­co. He said he nev­er pic­tured him­self in Okla­homa nor did he know about OSU (let alone that he would become a teacher there). He was the mid­dle child in a set of triplets to a sin­gle moth­er.

My mom didn’t real­ly go to col­lege and we didn’t know any­body that real­ly went,” Hoff­man said. “We had no mon­ey. You know gov­ern­ment hous­ing, food stamps, and just dirt pover­ty. So, it wasn’t that we couldn’t go to col­lege, but we knew that we would not be able to afford any­thing oth­er than what we could afford which was basi­cal­ly all stu­dent loans. In sev­enth grade, I dreamed of being a sports writer and learned that the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri was the num­ber one school in the nation for it. So that’s the only col­lege that I applied for and the good news is that I got in.”

Although he was accept­ed, Hoff­man still had many obsta­cles to over­come to get to his dream school. His moth­er had been approved for the loans in her name to both of their sur­prise, but he still lacked a car, a license, a phone and mon­ey to get him there. He had also missed every schol­ar­ship by one point on the ACT. His sav­ing grace, one of many, was his high school guid­ance coun­selor. On the con­di­tion that he got in, Hoffman’s coun­selor offered to per­son­al­ly dri­ve him there and drop him off at the cam­pus.

I was there but I knew no one,” Hoff­man said. “So, my finan­cial aid advi­sor met with me and I was try­ing to fig­ure out if there was more fund­ing because I lit­er­al­ly had noth­ing but loans. And she said, ‘not only do you not qual­i­fy for more loans, but I real­ly think that you’re set­ting your­self up to be home by Thanks­giv­ing because the qual­i­ty of stu­dent here is greater than what I see in your appli­ca­tion.’ And when you’re told some­thing like that, you can either give up or you can say you know what, even if you’re right and I am going to be home by Thanks­giv­ing I am not going to quit with­out giv­ing my all. I am one of those peo­ple that real­ly like hav­ing a chip on my shoul­der because I like prov­ing peo­ple wrong.”

He worked hard and earned straight A’s in his first semes­ter of col­lege. He went back lat­er to show the advi­sor she was wrong, but he learned she no longer worked at the school.

The finan­cial aid office has a high turnover rate, so I don’t know if she was fired or if she moved up or what,” Hoff­man said. “But to this day I wish I could give her the first copy of my print­ed book just to say thanks for the moti­va­tion.”

Hoff­man sur­vived his first semes­ter, but it wasn’t with­out the wor­ry of his stu­dent debt. At around thir­ty thou­sand dol­lars a year with his hous­ing and tuition, he would owe over one hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars at the time of his grad­u­a­tion. He knew it would be hard if not impos­si­ble to pay this back on a jour­nal­ism salary.

As fate would have it I knew the pres­i­dent of the jour­nal­ism school at Miz­zou,” Hoff­man said. “So, one day I just walked up to him and I said, ‘sir I know you don’t know who I am, but I won’t be able to stay anoth­er semes­ter at this school if I don’t meet with you and talk about finances.’ He rec­om­mend­ed I make an appoint­ment with his sec­re­tary and so I did.”

The jour­nal­ism school pres­i­dent combed Hoffman’s options and found one schol­ar­ship he could apply for. How­ev­er, it meant he would have to main­tain a 3.5 GPA or high­er for his entire col­lege career. Hoff­man was thank­ful and set out to prove him­self. Around the same time, Hoff­man applied to be an RA in his dorm build­ing. He knew noth­ing of the job but the idea of final­ly hav­ing his own room excit­ed him.

The finan­cial aid office has a high turnover rate, so I don’t know if she was fired or if she moved up or what.”

Shane Hoff­man

As a triplet, my broth­ers and I grew up in the same room about half the size of a col­lege dorm room,” Hoff­man said. “We had no floor space. We had one clos­et; we shared every­thing. We had one pack­et of deodor­ant and one razor between the three of us. It was lit­er­al­ly shar­ing every­thing. So, my dream had always been to have my own room. To me, that was what the Amer­i­can dream was in my world. It was not own­ing a car or get­ting mar­ried or buy­ing a house or mak­ing a bunch of mon­ey. It was hav­ing my own space.”

 

Hoff­man was accept­ed for the posi­tion but was upset when he real­ized that hav­ing the job meant the school want­ed him to pick a meal plan when he could not even afford the cheap­est one. He vis­it­ed the direc­tor of his dorm to respect­ful­ly turn down the job when he was shocked to real­ize that he had mis­un­der­stood and that the meal plan was not rec­om­mend­ed, it was com­pen­sa­tion for the job.

 

I start­ed cry­ing,” Hoff­man said. “I just remem­ber think­ing that I didn’t have to wor­ry about pay­ing for food and I was so hap­py. When I gath­ered myself, I asked her if there was some sort of dis­count since I would be mov­ing from a dou­ble to a sin­gle room. That’s when she told me I wouldn’t have to wor­ry about pay­ing for hous­ing either and I real­ly lost it. I bawled like a baby.”

 

His RA posi­tion pro­vid­ed more ben­e­fits than he knew at the time. The job not only saved almost him eight grand a year, but it served as the base for his teach­ing career. The RA’s at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri are actu­al­ly allowed to teach the res­i­dents they look after with a full 16-week syl­labus and a fac­ul­ty mem­ber serv­ing as their teach­ing assis­tant.

 

It was very intim­i­dat­ing,” Hoff­man said. “Espe­cial­ly since I was nine­teen and they were eigh­teen. But I remem­bered the woman who had told me I was going to be home next Thanks­giv­ing and I nev­er want­ed anoth­er stu­dent to be told such a cold and hor­ri­ble thing. So, I want­ed to be that light in their life and the sup­port they need­ed.”

Hoffman’s life was def­i­nite­ly look­ing up. He got the schol­ar­ship, the RA pack­age and that sum­mer he earned his res­i­den­cy. He took advan­tage of a pro­gram that sad­ly no longer exists where if a stu­dent stays in their col­lege state and works dur­ing sum­mer break they can obtain in-state res­i­den­cy. Hoff­man worked as a gas sta­tion atten­dant all sum­mer and took him­self from almost thir­ty-two thou­sand dol­lars in loans to two.

 

Hold onto your hap­pi­ness, right?

 

I went home the Christ­mas break of my junior year and dis­cov­ered I would be home­less,” Hoff­man said. “My moth­er had moved from the gov­ern­ment apart­ment to the prop­er­ty of a cab­in estate she man­aged but she was about to be laid off and since her house was tied to her job it meant she would be home­less. This meant that when I wasn’t at school I would be home­less too.”

 

Not only was Hoff­man bat­tling per­son­al issues, but he was also enter­ing the tough­est semes­ter of his aca­d­e­m­ic life. He was enrolled in a broad­cast­ing class that was noto­ri­ous for sep­a­rat­ing the deter­mined majors from the switch­ers. His pro­fes­sor warned his stu­dents that the only way to pass the class would be to get off cam­pus and tell some amaz­ing sto­ries. This scared him and for good rea­son.

 

I didn’t have a way to get off cam­pus,” Hoff­man said. “It wasn’t like Still­wa­ter with the great bus sit­u­a­tion. I didn’t even have mon­ey to buy a bus tick­et. So every sto­ry I did for that class I had to walk. And as part of that class, I worked for the NPR broad­cast sta­tion at Miz­zou, so I walked and found all my NPR broad­cast sto­ries. That spring break my girl­friend at the time was let­ting me sleep on her couch when the dorm closed so I wasn’t home­less. Thank God for that. I learned that her roommate’s boyfriend was the only per­son in the world who had pre­dict­ed the NCAA tour­na­ment cor­rect­ly in the first two rounds. Mil­lions of peo­ple fill out brack­ets to win mon­ey and he was one of the only peo­ple who could have filled that out and won I think around five mil­lion dol­lars. And I only found this out because I was home­less. “

 

Hoff­man was the first per­son to inter­view this man dubbed the “Ora­cle of the World” on the inter­net. He broke the news before the New York Times, the Dal­las news, and ESPN and it earned him an A+ (the first A his pro­fes­sor had giv­en and the high­est grade he has giv­en to this day). Things were look­ing up for Hoff­man and his life changed again with three phone calls the fall of his senior year.

 

My broth­er called me, and I know he hates talk­ing on the phone, so it was either going to be about sports or some­thing was wrong,” Hoff­man said. “There was almost an excit­ed ner­vous­ness as he spoke to me. He told me he had just checked his Myspace for the first time in a while and he had a mes­sage from a girl he had nev­er met. The gist of the mes­sage was ‘Hi, you prob­a­bly have no idea who I am, but my name is Jes­si­ca, I am your half-sis­ter and if you ever want to learn more about me here is my cell phone num­ber.’ He said he was shocked and had imme­di­ate­ly dialed me and now I was shocked. “

 

Maybe it was the stress of his mid-terms, but Hoff­man said he bare­ly remem­bered dial­ing the num­ber. He didn’t expect any­one to pick up. He didn’t even know if he expect­ed the num­ber to be real or whether a man would answer claim­ing to be a Niger­ian prince. But a woman answered the phone and it was at this moment that he real­ized he had to speak.

 

I had no idea what to say so I went with the first thing that came into my mind and it’s usu­al­ly bad, “Hoff­man said. “So, I say ‘Hi my name is Shane Hoff­man I’m appar­ent­ly your half-broth­er.’ And I expect her to be awk­ward, but she starts scream­ing with excite­ment like she’s just won the lot­tery. I’m con­fused because this woman is cel­e­brat­ing like I have nev­er heard before. I don’t know who she is. So final­ly when she calms down, which takes a few sec­onds, she says ‘I’m sor­ry I know this is going to come as a shock to you. I nev­er thought this day would hap­pen. We have been search­ing for you guys for over fif­teen years.’ And there is not a moment of your life that can pre­pare you for that.”

 

As a child, Hoff­man and his sib­lings had been told one state­ment about their father. That he didn’t care about them and didn’t want to see them. That was far from the truth. Dur­ing his phone call with his new half-sis­ter Jes­si­ca, Hoff­man fig­ured out he had not only one sis­ter, but three. Jes­si­ca was also preg­nant so soon he would be an uncle which made him incred­i­bly hap­py. When he asked about his father she told him that he was on a last-minute vaca­tion to Jamaica. He had ter­mi­nal liv­er can­cer and unless he received a mir­a­cle trans­plant he would die. In a short span of a day, Hoff­man went from hav­ing no fam­i­ly to hav­ing a big fam­i­ly and a father who would pos­si­bly want to be involved, to then being told his father may be gone soon.

 

So when he got back into the coun­try I got his infor­ma­tion and I called him,” Hoff­man said. “I was so used to what my mom had drilled in for years that he didn’t want me. But I called him. I lat­er had been told that he thought it was my moth­er call­ing which was why he answered the phone with ‘why am I get­ting a phone call from New Mex­i­co?’ I mus­tered my courage though and said, ‘because this is your son Shane’. He was not ready for that at all. “

 

Hoffman’s con­ver­sa­tion with his father let to the real­iza­tion that he had been lied to his entire life. His father was an alco­holic and spent most of his life bat­tling sub­stance abuse and pay­ing child sup­port. His moth­er, how­ev­er, had abrupt­ly fled Texas (where they lived for the first eight years) with her three sons and left behind no con­tact infor­ma­tion to their father who had vis­i­ta­tion rights. Their father, whom they had been told their entire life didn’t care or want them, had actu­al­ly been search­ing for them. He hoped they were bet­ter off with­out him due to his sub­stance abuse but was ecsta­t­ic to hear from Hoff­man. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is a hard top­ic with his moth­er who still thinks she did noth­ing wrong. His father, how­ev­er, did end up get­ting the trans­plant and is still alive today.

 

Despite this tough sit­u­a­tion, Hoffman’s jour­ney was far from over.

 

I’m hon­est­ly here because of a cler­i­cal error,” Hoff­man said.  “I switched advi­sors because the alpha­bet switched and unfor­tu­nate­ly my new advi­sor had not dou­ble checked the work of the per­son before him, so I had been count­ed for a class I had not actu­al­ly tak­en. It result­ed in me hav­ing to extend my school year by anoth­er semes­ter. But I had no more fund­ing. So, I found out because I am a first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dent that I can apply for this thing called the McNair schol­ar­ship which is this high­ly-com­pet­i­tive research pro­gram that pre­pares first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents for grad­u­ate school. I nev­er thought of grad­u­ate school. I nev­er want­ed to be in grad­u­ate school. But I had to be in col­lege for anoth­er half a year any­way, so I applied and was approved. And it was a real­ly com­pet­i­tive year.”

 

The only way Hoff­man could stay in the pro­gram was if he stayed a full extra year instead of the extra semes­ter, so he filled his time with elec­tive class­es like piano lessons and defec­tive dairy tast­ing. Because Hoff­man was a McNair schol­ar, he was viewed as a five-star ath­lete by grad­u­ate schools since these schools receive extra mon­ey for bring­ing first-semes­ter col­lege grad­u­ate stu­dents to their cam­pus. Hoff­man was approached by Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty. He had nev­er actu­al­ly heard of them. The school was so inter­est­ed in bring­ing Hoff­man on that they agreed to fund his master’s degree for free and pay assis­tance-ship for his hous­ing. He attend­ed Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty for a semes­ter and dur­ing this semes­ter the pro­fes­sor he was under relapsed as an alco­holic and left the school for rehab. Since the staff had no time to replace his class­es, Hoff­man (as a grad­u­ate stu­dent with pre­vi­ous teach­ing expe­ri­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri) was thrown in to replace him. He made such a good impres­sion with the OSU staff that they offered him a one-year con­tract after he grad­u­at­ed. Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty would have stuck to their one-year deal except Hoff­man was award­ed Pro­fes­sor of the Year for Arts and Sci­ences. Since the vot­ing was done by the stu­dents, Hoff­man was offered a sec­ond con­tract. He is almost done with his fifth con­tract.

 

I know sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, giv­ing my back­ground, my mom hav­ing a severe men­tal ill­ness (bipo­lar schiz­o­phre­nia) I should be in jail or still in New Mex­i­co work­ing two dead-end jobs with mul­ti­ple kids to sup­port,” Hoff­man said.  “And yet I get to be a mul­ti­me­dia jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at OSU. I have nev­er for­got­ten that and so it always feels like every day is Dis­ney­land to me. Every day I wake up want­i­ng to prove not only to myself but to my stu­dents that I can help them. My job is not done until they have one. And even though it’s very stren­u­ous I love what I do. I get to be the cat­a­lyst that makes oth­er stu­dents’ dreams come true. I wouldn’t trade any of it. Because what I have also real­ized that when I share my sto­ry with my stu­dents it gives me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk to them about their pain and their sto­ry.  It’s the stu­dents that are strug­gling the most with grief or grades or finances that I can sit down with and try to be that light and that exam­ple. That means more to me than any­thing.”

 

Hoff­man still loves his job and hopes that in the future he can have con­tracts for longer years at a time and pos­si­bly a raise but will stay on at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty while he is val­ued and need­ed.

 

I nev­er want stu­dents to feel like they are alone,” Hoff­man said. “And I want every day when I get out of bed to have those stu­dents out there that feel that lone­li­ness know by the time they get out of my class that they will always have an ally. “

 

An amaz­ing sto­ry about an amaz­ing man. He has had a pro­found effect on the lives of many stu­dents (includ­ing my own).  I hope that he con­tin­ues to do what he loves the most; help­ing those who need it.

Publisher’s Note: We at Unique­la­homa strive to bring pos­i­tive, enlight­en­ing and enter­tain­ing sto­ries to our read­ers. We write and pub­lish sto­ries on all aspects of Okla­homa and its peo­ple, places, and busi­ness­es. It is our hope that our sto­ries touch oth­ers through the unique­ness of each per­son and place we high­light. The fol­low­ing sto­ry is one such sto­ry we hope impacts you in a pos­i­tive man­ner. 

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