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Sean Means 2014 Scholar Interviewed
By: Parke Muth
Sean Means 2014 Ron Brown Scholar Spends Time Reflecting on His Scholarship Award
By: Parke Muth, Parke Muth Consulting (Charlottesville)
Can you tell us a little about yourself-- your family--your mother, siblings etc. Where did you grow up and where did you go to high school?
Well, my name is Sean Means. I am 18 years old. I like to read, play football, play chess, and debate. I like listening to music and just walking and observing the world around me. I can be quite focused and driven and stale at times, but if you give me a chance I will grow on you, hopefully. I have a younger brother, Christian, and a younger sister, Logan. We were raised by our mother, LaTisha, who has been a critical support system in my life. We were raised mostly in Memphis, TN before we moved to Charlottesville about two years ago. In Memphis I went to a school named White Station High School and here I went to Monticello High School.
When you were younger were you always curious and always pushing yourself to learn and to be a help to your mom and siblings?
Since I was little my focus has been on learning all that I could. I really like learning and so PBS and the library were and still are two of my favorite things. From an early age I knew that I wanted to be able to help my mom and alleviate some of the pressure that was in our lives. The way I could do that was to do my best in school, to get an education, and to make something of myself, while at the same time helping out where I could at home.
Do you have role models or heroes?
Like many, my mom is one of my role models. I don’t know if I really have heroes. I understand the burden that has been put on others before me and so I see them all as my heroes. Moreover my heroes change depending on how I feel and what I am focusing on. There are people like Ghandi, the freedom riders, my teachers, past presidents, Charlie Rose, I really like his reporting and his show, and countless others that just influence my decisions, my thinking, and my life whether through direct or indirect contact. Sometimes I am just inspired by a person in my class who has overcome struggles or has just done better than me on something. People in general, I guess are my heroes and role models; a pretty open and vague answer I know, but nonetheless it is the truth.
You seem, from all I have read, to be pretty low key about your accomplishments, activities ad exceptional academic achievements. How do stay humble given all you have done?
That is the thing, I see that I have done a lot I guess, but to me it seems pretty normal. My family and my faith are anchors and I try to look to them both when I am lost. Yet for me in general, I look at my success and accolades as reassurance that I am on the right path, and so while they are milestones, they are just those milestones. I have to keep growing and keep moving forward and that drive for self improvement I believe keeps me humble. Moreover I know people are watching me and I want to show them that if they try they can be just like me if not better and my humility I hope keeps me on the same level as everyone else.
How do you balance all that you do without stressing out?
It is a constant struggle. I find myself constantly writing in a planner and constantly thinking about what I have to do. I try not to focus too hard on my to-do lists because if I do I know it would be harder to finish anything. The best thing for me to do is be disciplined when planning, enjoy the moment, and sometimes just work through the stress because not finishing something will just cause more stress.
I was lucky enough to spend a day at you your school this fall and sat in on an AP English class you were in. I have known your teacher for many years (back when she was a student) and saw how she helped guide the discussion of Lord of the Flies. She is clearly a gifted teacher. But what I also saw that day was the great respect students showed each other in their comments toward one another. You contributed some great insights but also complimented others on what they said. I guess the question I have is do you think the great chemistry of the class results more from the teacher the students, the subject matter or a mix of all of these?
I would have to say it is a mix of all three. If a teacher cannot facilitate such a discussion or inspire respect from the class it is a real uphill battle for control. Yet the subject matter must also be interesting sparking the students’ interests. The subject matter has to push students to think, yet at the same time not being too intimidating, which can isolate students. Moreover, students are a huge part in the whole experience. The various depths and life experiences that each student brings to the table is important, but more importantly there has to be a community where people encourage others and where disagreement are welcomed as a way to learn but not to belittle. The students and teacher have to make the class feel safe for all.
Have you always felt comfortable contributing to discussions?
Yes and no. Sometimes I have felt too comfortable with contributing especially when I was younger. I lacked restraint back then, and I believe that was at times detrimental to discussion because I could not grow from others opinions and sometimes others just did not want to speak. I think later on I became a little too quite trying to avoid conflict and to not seem like a know-it all. Yet over time, I think I have found a good balance and have gained skills that allow me to comfortably contribute without dominating the discussion.
Some people argue that leaders and scholars are born not made. Do you agree with this statement?
I think sometimes people have innate qualities that could make them good leaders, yet I believe experience, teachings, and life help to mold and harness those qualities in order for a true leader or scholar to arise. I have found that nature and nurture are both critical because there are people that I have seen with the potential to be so much better than they are, yet without that support or just an extreme endurance to pull oneself up, they stumble and fall not reaching their full potential.
You are now in a situation where, even at a young age, you are a role model for others. Could you give a few pieces of advice for those who see your success and would like to follow you?
It is crazy when I think about myself being a role model. I don’t know, I still feel like ordinary me. Yet some advice that I would give is be yourself first and foremost and I don’t me that self you put on show for people or that tough exterior that you have to protect yourself. I mean be true to yourself and your goals. Don’t let people discourage you or tell you what you can and can’t do. I was told that I couldn’t keep getting good grades, that it would be almost impossible to get into Stanford, and that I would never be good at football and should just quit. However, I have proven them wrong.
Another piece of advice I would give is get an education and treasure it. Learning can be fun and it can be difficult, but it is your way to success. I know people emphasize a formal education with college and degrees, but I am saying get a good high school education and then move forward with your learning whether that is college, trade school, or apprenticeships. Never stop learning.
One more thing to remember is that no one is perfect and even if you stumble or fall flat on your face you can still pick yourself up and succeed. The limits to your success are only set by you, and while your path might be a little harder, a little more rugged, you can still overcome anything and can still succeed.
I have some more advice, but I think the three points above are really important.
I have known Mike Mallory for decades. He is a wonderful person and I know he has been exceptionally impressed with you. Can you talk about what the Ron Brown Scholarship means to you?
I have gotten this question a few times, and it is funny because my understanding of the program and its meaning to me has changed since I was first asked this. For me the Ron Brown Scholarship meant that I could go to college, even Stanford a school on the other side of the country without going into huge debt. The Ron Brown Scholarship also introduced me to a whole new world of people all moving forward and trying to excel against the statistical odds that surround people of color. Moreover, the Ron Brown program means support for me. It is a group that is with you for the rest of your life and is there for you in your high and low points. The program isn’t a fair-weather friend but is always there for you and the community that I have witnessed from this program has been quite meaningful.
Can you talk a bit about where you will be going off to school and what you plan to study? Do you have any short or long-term goals you would like to share?
I will be heading off to Stanford University in California. I usually say it is about 45mins out from San Francisco. Right now I am interested in majoring in International Relations. I have been focused on this major for a few years due to my time in Model UN and my hope that a better understanding of the world would help me in life but also as a possible diplomat or advisor. I am not sure if this will remain my major, but I know my focus will stay in the humanities and social science areas. I hope to get all that I can out of Stanford. I hope to meet people who will challenge my thinking and help me grow as a student but more importantly as a person. My short term goals are to acclimate well to my new surroundings during those first few weeks and to get the lay of the land down pack. Some long term goals are to graduate with honors at the top of my class, have to keep the goals high, and to continue onto law school with the hopes of becoming a lawyer or possibly going into politics. My ultimate goal is to not get caught up in things that could lead me astray and to stay focused and to never lose sight of who I am in whatever I do and wherever I am.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I am no supreme intellect or above anybody. I am just a regular person that has worked hard and has been blessed by God with a few gifts that have helped me succeed. I truly believe if we each do our part and try our best to make the world better it will get better. There are two quotes that I go to one is by Ghandi that says “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and the other is a piece from a poem by Marianne Williamson and it says, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, /but that we are powerful beyond measure. / It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.” I believe both these quotes and believe that they are good words to follow.
I am not sure what life has in stored for me, but I plan to face it with the same determination, will, and humility I have faced everything else. I believe all have the potential to succeed and if people put in the work and others work to help them, we as a hole will be that much better off.