Never Tell Me The Odds
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.”
“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.