‘Twice Exceptional’ Student Earns Ph.D., Spearheads Research on Gifted Minority Students with Learning Disabilities
Interview by Brianna Rae
Dr. Shawn Anthony Robinson recently obtained his Ph.D. from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee in the Literacy and Language program. He previously earned a master’s in school counseling from DePaul University as well as a bachelor’s degree in Human Services from UW-Oshkosh. His concentration is on students who are, like himself, twice-exceptional, meaning they are both intellectually gifted and have some form of disability. He is one of the only scholars in the U.S. to focus on the theory, scholarship and literature that explores twice-exceptional Black males who have dyslexia. The Madison Times had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Robinson to discuss his unique journey through academia. Below are excerpts from interview, which is edited for clarity and brevity.
TMT: Describe your background and early academic history.
Robinson: I’m from the North suburbs of Chicago, I went to a school district where my mother thought I’d get a good education, it’s one of the best school districts in the country, and I had (and still have) a learning disability. The focus of my learning was more behavioral, like with most Black kids, so they put me in special education. I had a lot of great teachers in my special education journey who were very patient, and loving and caring. But I was angry, I didn’t know how to read, so you know, if you get kids who are young and frustrated, teachers need to examine the root cause of their acting out, which may be related to their inability to read. So I had a lot of anger built up, I got kicked out, and went to an alternative high school for kids with behavioral needs, and I graduated at an elementary reading level. So I started college way behind. Statistically I probably shouldn’t have even gotten into college, or made it past the first semester, especially if you look at the data for retention of minority students in general. So that’s where I first learned to read, and once that door opened, I never stopped. And since high school, I’ve been in school for 18 years. So, it took a lot of patience and a lot of faith. It took me six years to learn everything I missed in high school and catch up in undergrad, plus my regular college load.
TMT: So you were diagnosed with dyslexia as a kid?
Robinson: No, I was diagnosed at the beginning of my senior year of high school. It wasn’t even caught by anyone in the school district, it was caught by a professor, Dr. Nash.
TMT: Did you always want to go to college? What motivated you to pursue that, given the rough time you had in school as a kid?
Robinson: No, my mom was the one who pushed me more than anybody, she was like ‘You’re not staying with me!’ [laughs]. You know, I think about different forms of capital, like family capital and aspirational capital, they were things I got from my mother and other adults. And she actually found the program that I went to in college, because no one told her that there was a program out there for students like myself.
TMT: What did you start off studying in college?
Robinson: I was just in general education. They have a program where I went to undergrad at UW-Oshkosh that’s designed for remedial students who have language deficits or dyslexia, and you get help with reading comprehension, reading strategies, math tutoring, and writing instruction, which are necessary for the success of students with dyslexia who need extra academic support. Once I got in and learned to read, I always knew I wanted to help and become a teacher, so then I tried to become a teacher but the Dean of the Education Department told my professors and I that based on my dyslexia and my grades that I would never be a good teacher. So they told me I should go on a different track, so I went to Human Services, and that’s what I got my undergrad degree in.
TMT: So after that, you decided to keep pursuing education?
Robinson: Yep, I got my masters in school counseling in the school of education at DePaul University, but it took me five years to get that because I had to learn everything I missed in undergrad, particularly writing.. My graduate adviser told me that based on my hard work and letters of recommendation that he was going to accept me, but I had to meet expectations and he raised the bar pretty high for me. So in order to continue, I had get three B’s or higher in my first three courses, and I got two B’s and one C and I was freaking out, but he made the exception and waived it because he saw my hard work. But, he told me that I had to also use the writing center. Writing is a big issue for a lot of students, and for students with learning disabilities it’s even harder.
TMT: Right, it’s incredibly difficult. So after that, you thought you’d shoot for a Ph.D. too?
Robinson: Yep, yep, it took seven years, and even there I had to learn and catch up on things that I had missed, because the rest of my cohort were all certified teachers and did their master’s work in teaching, so I had to catch up and learn all of the rhetoric and vocabulary that they use on top of all my other work, so it was a…journey.
TMT: Where do you feel like you got your drive to do what you’ve done? Going through the hard work of earning multiple degrees is no easy task, even for someone without learning disabilities. You really seem to have an atypical drive and motivation and perseverance…
Robinson: I don’t know, I think when I became conscious critically of my ability, I think I partly had a chip on my shoulder and felt like proving wrong the people who always told me I couldn’t make it. But also, I think I started school and just kept going, and wanted to show other students that regardless of where you started, you can accomplish great things if you work hard.
I had to do what I had to do, and that’s what I tell kids is that, you can’t let people define your path or write your narrative. If you’re hungry enough, you’re going to eat. It’s the same thing with education. If you want it bad enough you’re going to do what you have to do to be successful.
TMT: One of the things that I think gets in the way of a lot of kids’ motivation or dreams of school is student loans and the financial burden of education.
Robinson: Yeah, I’m in debt, but I don’t worry about it as much as I used to, I know God’s going to work it out for me. I know there’s a reason that I did this long of schooling, it’s going to pay off someday. My family has been a big supporter!
TMT: I want to shift into what you’re doing right now and what your work focuses on, what you study and what you do.
Robinson: Well, during my master’s I did projects with AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination, a national organization that helps prepare students for post-secondary opportunities and success and close the achievement gap]. I did a project for students identified as at-risk, and I developed a program with teachers to help change the narrative of their experience.
My Ph.D. focuses on three critical aspects of education that are not discussed in literature and research, which is giftedness, race, and learning disabilities. Black males especially are not talked about in the literature. I study students who are twice-exceptional, and within the literature there is no conceptual framework or body of knowledge that focuses on gifted black males with dyslexia. There’s literature on gifted black students in general, but there’s no literature no black males with dyslexia and no literature that combines all three. It is very rare for Black males who are in Special Education to obtain a terminal degree and I want to help change that narrative. We can’t keep letting teachers write the narrative of Black males, we need Black males in Special Education to write their own narratives.
I figured that to understand the social phenomena affecting gifted black males with reading disabilities or dyslexia, I would just study myself and try to figure out what I learned throughout this Ph.D. program and then apply it to help others.
TMT: Now that you’ve just graduated – congratulations, by the way – what do you plan to do now?
Robinson: I have a young son, and I’m a stay-at-home dad, and I think I just want to rest for awhile, to breathe. But in the back of my mind I’m pushing myself to try to find something and look for different jobs around the country.
TMT: As far as your career path, do you want to be a professor? What do you want to do?
Robinson: I want to be a professor. It’s just going to be a matter of finding the right fit. At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids and their future. I can’t emphasize that enough — kids are our future, they are our next leaders. Right now I’m just trying to be part of a solution that’s bigger than me, I want to help change lives.