When Michael Scott Jr. was a young boy, his ambition was to be a pilot. He would sit on the family porch with binoculars and watch planes as they flew into the two Chicago airports.
“I could tell you the airline just by looking at the color. I could tell you the type of plane,” he said. “I was intrigued with flight, with the idea of being able to fly through the sky.”
In his senior year of high school, however, Scott’s career ambitions veered off that pilot path and soared even higher. As citywide student council president in Gary, Ind., Scott took part in an exchange program with other Indiana schools in Valparaiso and Crown Point. He saw what his school lacked and what others had. He noticed the strong effect that good schools, motivational teachers and quality education have on young people.
“I had an epiphany,” he said. “Education became my calling …. Someone told me that old saying, ‘If you want to be immortal, become a teacher. A little piece of you lives on in your students.’ I knew how important education was and that altered my future goals.”
Looking back at his high school years in Gary, Scott notes that 333 students were in his freshman class. Four years later, “only 127 of us were walking across the stage to graduate. And only 15 percent of us have gone on to complete college. Understandably, college is not for everyone, but it is critical to show young people that they can get more education, that going to college is possible and often necessary to get a sustainable job.”
Earlier this year, Scott added, U.S. Steel in Gary announced it was laying off another 285 workers.
“U.S. Steel was the backbone of Gary,” he said. “It is no longer a guarantee that you can get a job or keep a job in an industry like U.S. Steel. But ultimately, young people need to find a sustainable career they are passionate about and work to get it. A college degree is often key to that sustainability.”
With several scholarships (he was co-salutatorian of Lew Wallace High School Class of 2006), Scott began checking out colleges to fulfill his ambition. He was already familiar with Indiana State University — his sister had gone there and so had two cousins, as well as high school teachers and principals he admired. He liked the beauty of the campus, enjoyed the hospitality of faculty and students and knew the university has an excellent college of education.
“Some of my friends tried to talk me out of being a teacher,” he said. “They knew of my ambition to be a pilot, but teaching is my passion …. Education is the bedrock of any community. I can’t think of any calling more important than being a teacher.”
While at Indiana State, Scott served as student government association president and started two organizations focused on mentorship and leadership development. Upon graduating cum laude in 2010 as a social studies education and political science major, Scott was the recipient of the President’s Medal for Leadership, Scholarship and Service, and the Alan C. Rankin Distinguished Senior Award.
Then he headed off to teach — first as a social studies teacher at Kipp Truth Academy in Dallas, where he taught two years as part of Teach For America. Then he spent time at Democracy Prep Harlem in Harlem, where he has been teaching 7th grade social studies for two years.
With the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Scott will be going back to school himself — he was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education on a two-year fellowship.
“I never ever expected this to happen,” the 27-year-old said. “If you had told me seven months ago, I would be going to Harvard in the near future, I would have laughed. I wouldn’t believe it.”
Getting into the prestigious graduate school was the result of trying. That’s right — Scott decided to try, and he succeeded.
“I got an email about a program at Harvard,” he said. “I might have deleted the email, because I was already teaching. But I learned at ISU, when opportunity knocks, seize the moment. Open the door and see what’s on the other side.”
At Indiana State, one of those “carpe diem” experiences happened in 2008 when Scott heard about a program for college students to attend the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis or the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
“I thought I probably won’t get it but I went ahead and wrote a one-page application on why I wanted to go,” he said.
The result? “I witnessed history in the making,” Scott said. “I saw Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States …. If I could give any advice to anyone, it would definitely be to seize opportunities as they come along.”
After his Harvard master’s program, Scott will begin a principal residency in Chicago Public Schools. Becoming a principal will allow him to set the tone for a school and to create better educational opportunities for students and teachers.
“My goal,” he said, “was to be a principal by the time I was 30. It looks as though I will accomplish that goal by the time I am 29. Ideally in the fall of 2017, I will be either a principal or assistant principal in a Chicago school.”
Much of the motivation for setting goals and achieving them has come from his parents, Scott said. “My parents didn’t go to college until after they raised us. They valued education and made sure my sisters and I did, too.”
His mother, Sharon Scott, is an instructor at Ivy Tech Community College in Gary. His father, Michael Sr., was director of the Youth Services Bureau for the city of Gary and served on the local school board from the time his son was in first grade until Michael completed his time at Indiana State.
“Two weeks after I graduated from Indiana State University, my father passed away,” Scott said. “He had a big impact on my choices in life and I know he would be very proud of what I am doing.”