Shannon Branch: “Thanks to Per Scholas, and those of you that support them, I have a future!”

​The speech delivered by keynote speaker of ROI 2014, Shannon Branch:

My name is Shannon Branch. I’m a recent graduate of Per Scholas, and I’m proud to tell you what Per Scholas means to me.

I was born to drug-addicted parents, here in New York City. At the age of 7 months, I was taken from my mother and placed in foster care in North Carolina, while my mother was supposed to get her life together. I never knew that the woman who was raising me and my two older brothers wasn’t my mother, until one day, I was told, “Oh, you’re going back to New York now.”

I was 7 years old.

I remember being on the plane to New York with a social worker. We were so into church down south that I asked her, “Where are the angels?” We were in the sky, and I was thinking, “Where’s heaven? Where’s Jesus?”

When I first came back to my mother in New York, I cried that whole summer.

I was confused and angry that I hadn’t been told the truth by the foster mother, who was raising me I was sad because I missed her, but I didn’t want to go back to that life. It wasn’t real to me anymore.

What got me through that was the fact that, while I was down south, my mother had three more children. I wasn’t the baby anymore, and I wanted to get to know my new family.

After two years, though, my mother was back on drugs and I was back in foster care. Meanwhile my father had been arrested and done 2 years in jail.

But since then, he’d gotten his life together — he’d been working, going to drug programs, and staying clean. He started taking parenting classes and was able to get custody of me and my two older brothers. I’d never lived with my father, and never had a father when I lived down south, so I was happy. I thought, “Oh, a male figure.”

For the first few years, we lived with my grandmother, my grandfather, and my uncle. My brothers and my father and I shared the one room that my grandmother had given us. It was jam-packed, but it was good. And then, when I was in 8th grade, my father got his own 3-bedroom apartment in East Harlem, where we’ve been living ever since.

My father is a working man, but he was there for us 100 percent — and he still is. He came home every night, he washed the dishes and cooked dinner, and he went to parent teacher conferences. He was Mommy and Daddy. He’s a great man, and without him, I really don’t know where I would be.

The hardest thing about life at that time was high school. My older brothers had both dropped out. So many people around me dropped out that people just assumed that I was not going to graduate.

I hated going to school, especially going through the metal detector every day. I’d take out my keys, my change, and take off my book bag, but no matter what, it was always going to beep. Then they would scan me up and down like I was a criminal. Just that daily experience made me not want to go to school anymore.

But finally, I started seeing my classmates who were graduating and making plans to move on. That made me say, “I’m going to graduate with you.”

So in my senior year of high school, I took 8 or 9 classes to catch up. And I’m very proud to say that I graduated on time.

Now, college was a different story.

The amount of work was crazy, and I didn’t have a strategy to deal with it. I didn’t have someone to guide me, and I felt overwhelmed.

Plus, they made me take a mandatory public speaking class. I was horrified, because I almost never open my mouth around people I don’t know. I have stage fright, and in my head, there was no way I was standing up in front of that class to give a speech.

With the right strategy, it would have been easier. But no one in my family had finished college, and I felt like I had no one to turn to. So I dropped out and went to work.

Working hard is something I was raised to do.

My father didn’t let me sit home for the summer and do nothing and then expect him to give me money. I’ve been working since I was 14 — clerical work, working with children — and when I left college, I got a job at Duane Reade. I worked there for 3 1/2 years, and then got a job as a locker room attendant at the YMCA.

But despite being “employed,” I had no future. It was depressing. I was going nowhere, in a job that was leading to nothing. I was on a dead-end path and in a really dark place, personally.

Fortunately, a friend of mine working in Human Resources for the City would get a lot of mailings about job training opportunities. She knew about my depression, and took it upon herself to send me two listings: one for construction, and one for IT.

Both of them were education programs, and both were free. But Per Scholas offered technology –the future. Technology is all around us, it’s what we’re living in.

I saw this as a chance to finally have my own future, too. So after I got the info, I showed up the next day at Per Scholas 9:00 AM sharp and took their entrance test — and I passed!

Per Scholas offered me an entry-level IT course to get two certifications, A+ and Net+.

They also had an all-women’s IT-Ready class – and because I grew up in an all-male environment, that’s the one I chose. I’d never really had a female role model – and now I had 20 of them. Some of them had college degrees, some had high schools diplomas, but they’d all struggled, and they all brought life experience to the table. I got to hear their background stories, and some of them were not that different from mine. Each of these women inspired me, and it was good to know that I wasn’t alone.

The class itself was hard.

I didn’t catch on right away, and I was scared that maybe it wasn’t for me. But after a few weeks I started getting it.

One of the best things Per Scholas did was invite four women who work in the field to come and talk to my class. Three of them were African-American and one was Hispanic, and they told us their trials and tribulations; what they go through in an environment where only 3% of the professionals are minority women.

They stepped their foot in the door.

They’re making change —

And they gave us courage and confidence, because they’re the proof that we can do it, too!

Since I came to Per Scholas, I know that I can succeed.

I’d like to have a family and someday I’d like to have my own business and employ minorities, women, gays and lesbians, African American, Hispanic, everyone. People like me who just need somebody to show them the skills they need to be successful.

But for right now, my goal is to get a great job in IT.

When I get that job – maybe working for one of you – I will be the first person in my family to have a professional career.

I know it’ll be tough, and there’ll be some bumps along the way, but I am so ready for this! I’m smart, I know how to get with the program, and I bring a lot to the table.

I bring confidence. I bring my hard work ethic. I bring integrity.

And of course, I bring the great IT training that I got from Per Scholas.

Thanks to Per Scholas, and those of you who support them, I have a future! And so do hundreds of other women just like me.

You’ve helped me grow, and push myself. You showed me what it means to succeed. You taught me to walk with confidence in the world — and I can’t wait to start giving back!”

(Shannon ended with an impromptu Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers in the room — and to you)

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