When Shirl Penney was born, no one could have imagined just how far he would go. At birth, he was taken in and raised by his step-grandfather under challenging living conditions in Eastport, Maine, a small fishing village on the rocky coast of northern Maine, where the rate of students attending college is still around 20%. If not for his granddad’s and other mentors’ support, Penney’s life could have taken a very different path.
Instead, Penney ultimately went on to found his own company, Wall Street investment services firm Dynasty Financial Partners, and in 2015 was named to Investment News’ list of the 40 most influential wealth management professionals under the age of 40.
Penney came to USM to not only to share his amazing story about how education and his mentors helped him to break the cycle of poverty, but he spent some time meeting with the inaugural class of the University of Southern Maine's Promise Scholars, a group of 19 young people from throughout Maine who were selected for their leadership potential, ability and willingness to give it back to the world.
Keeping the Promise
USM’s Promise Scholars are incoming freshmen, continuing students, or transfers who demonstrate financial need and commit to full-time enrollment with a minimum of 15 credits. They are recommended by mentors -- from community organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA/YWCA, Big Sisters/Brothers, Camp Susan Curtis, Tree Street Youth, their schools -- who say “watch this kid, this kid is going to be amazing - we promise!”
USM’s promise is to help this group of talented, predominantly first-generation students overcome financial, academic, social and cultural barriers so that they are able to remain in school and graduate in four years with little or no debt.
Thanks to a generous initial seed gift from Richard and Carolyn McGoldrick, USM launched the Promise Scholars initiative in October 2017 with a $15 million campaign goal to fund 25 new scholarships each year. In 20 months, with the McGoldricks co-chairing the campaign, half of the funding has been raised, and the 2018 inaugural class includes 19 scholars.
On September 6th to a packed house at Hannaford Hall, USM President Glenn Cummings introduced the inaugural cohort of young people lauding their “miraculous stories” and expressing how proud he was of them pursuing their education at USM.
Cummings related how Penney’s story is the story of USM, and how his own journey is similar to that of many students who attend USM, half of whom are first-generation college students.
“I was the first of my family here in Maine to attend a four-year college,” Cummings said. “To me, Shirl’s story is that of a new generation, a new hope given to him through education, and that’s a beautiful story… We are proud that our students are in the game of changing the dynamic of their lives through higher education.”
Several years ago, USM had two students who needed support to pursue their degrees, and they were anonymously sponsored by the McGoldricks. Cummings said the two they became USM’s original promise scholars and they are well on the way now to pursuing their dreams. Mohamed "Mo" Awale graduated in 2017 and is starting his career with a job in the insurance industry and Brianna DiDonato-Duran '08, '13 is teaching special education in the Gorham public schools and has started a doctoral program at USM.
Education as the hope and light for the future
After welcoming the inaugural class of Promise Scholars, Carolyn McGoldrick introduced one of them, freshman Washima Fairoz, who spoke on behalf of the group.
Fairoz gave a brief but passionate speech, thanking her mentors, her mother, and the McGoldricks, and expressing her fierce desire to pursue higher education. “Growing up in a patriarchal society as a female, it was very difficult for me just to aspire to achieve higher education. I knew education was the only hope to break away from the shackles of ignorance,” she said.
With her dream of a college degree blocked by a lack of funds, Fairoz said she had given up hope until her mentor, Eliza Ruel, from USM’s TRIO Upward Bound program, pushed her to apply for the Promise Scholarship. “When I got the news I couldn’t believe my eyes…I’m going to college... I still can’t believe I’m standing here at USM!” she exclaimed to an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience.
“This is not just a scholarship for me personally,” she said. “It means hope and light, and the stairs for my future,” Fairoz said.
The incredible story of Shirl Penney - from poverty to prosperity
The evening concluded with Penney sharing his story of how higher education provided him with the path out of poverty. He started by echoing the thanks for everyone involved in the Promise Scholarship program and he congratulated the students and their families. In spending time with the inaugural class of Scholars, he said they are the very definition of promise. “It’s tough to put into words the profound impact of what our contributions will do for these young people… who have tremendous potential and just need a leg up.”
He shared a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that he had engraved on the tombstone of the man who raised him, his step-granddad Clarence Townsend -- “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” By that definition, he said, speaking to the audience -- how successful is this room!
Penney said he has stood in the shoes of students with challenges -- he knows where they are, as he has been there -- living in a 300 square foot, falling down house with no insulation and a wood stove for heat, sometimes digging clams for breakfast, no TV and only a radio for entertainment, and even being homeless at one point, living with neighbors. But he always felt loved.
His granddad, who had a 4th grade education, would drag him out of bed to go to school. “He believed education was the key for me to live a different life than the one he had,” Penney said.
Penney said he rarely shares his life story, but he did it as he hoped that it would inspire those in the audience to “invest in the American Dream.”
With hard work, and thanks to supportive teachers, coaches, mentors and his very persistent granddad, Penney got his chance, eventually being accepted to Bates College. However, as he related, although he did not have a Promise Scholarship, instead he had loans, some scholarship aid, and worked five jobs to be able to afford college. He honed his entrepreneurial skills by creating several small start-up businesses, including being an early-stage adopter of e-Bay, finding antiques in the area and selling them on commission. And he used the career center at Bates to prepare him for the work world, and apply for internships.
By age 22, he had landed in New York City, beginning what would eventually become a highly successful career in finance. With hard work, support of his mentors, and higher education, Penney found a path out of poverty.
And now through his incredible success, he’s giving back. He said what wealthy people have, is access to education. That’s what the Promise Scholars program is changing - making higher education available to talented students with the drive to succeed without burdening them with significant debt.
He finished by addressing the Promise Scholars - saying, “These people in this room are all here for you. When times are tough, remember all who sacrificed their resources, time, talents for all of you. This is an incredible opportunity… and the way you can repay this investment is to pay it forward. Go back into your communities, inspire, motivate and mentor others.”
View the entire program here.
By Danielle Vayenas / Office of Public Affairs