Teachers will tell you it isn’t unusual for a student to leave a lasting impression. But what about a student they’ve never met?
A student like John Sinclair.
Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, associate professor of psychology at Saint Leo University, first encountered Sinclair in 2011, when he enrolled as an online student in her social psychology course.
“He was a great student and worked very hard in the class,” she recalls. “His discussions each week were insightful. He found ways to get his work completed and rarely asked for extra time.”
Not exactly the evaluation you’d expect to describe a student living out of his car, struggling each day to pay for food, gas and the cell phone that allowed him to connect to his classes online.
But then again, John Sinclair isn’t your average student.
On his own at age 18
On the day he graduated high school in 2004, Sinclair, who grew up without a father, found himself on the street in the city of Hesperia in California’s Mojave Desert.
With no one to support him and nowhere to go, Sinclair enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where he served four years before being honorably discharged with a lower back injury. As he waited for the benefits that would take nearly five years to come, Sinclair worked a low-wage job at a private security firm, all the while knowing that education was the key to a better life.
“In 2011, I was contemplating returning to college, but didn’t have the money for it until a Saint Leo University recruiter helped me realize that assistance called ‘financial aid’ exists to help students with loans and books,” he says. “I immediately registered and stayed with Saint Leo University's online degree program until I graduated in 2013 with a degree in psychology.”
While Sinclair knew that education would change his life, he didn’t realize that it also would save his life.
Finding hope while homeless
During his two years as a student in the university’s online psychology degree program, the challenges only mounted for Sinclair, losing his car to repossession, and his job when the company he worked for lost a major contract.
“At the time, I was still waiting for veterans benefits. I had the choice to stay at a homeless shelter in the city, but I refused to because it was surrounded by drugs and crime. Though I tried, couldn’t find any work.”
Gathering what little money he had, Sinclair purchased a 20-year-old pick-up that would become his home for the next three months. Using a power-converter to charge his laptop, on most days Sinclair did school work out of his truck, although he did visit a truck stop from time to time to write his longer research papers.
“School work occupied me and kept me from going insane,” he says, recalling the desert’s freezing mornings and afternoon temperatures above 100 degrees.
“Had I not had my online courses during 2012 when I was living out of a cold truck, I probably wouldn’t be here today. My Saint Leo classes and the voice of Stevie Nicks from a constantly played ‘Best of Fleetwood Mac’ CD are what kept me alive.”
That and the support he found at Saint Leo University.
“My Saint Leo instructors and academic advisor, whom I never met in person, game me strength, encouragement and warmth through that struggling period of my life, and I will never forget how much they’ve helped me.
“I only regret that I never had the chance to meet any of them in person, as I have been on the opposite side of the country.”
Committed to making the best of every day
Today, Sinclair, 28, is living in Las Vegas, Nev., working full-time at night and taking a full load of classes at Nevada State College, where he is pursuing a double major in biology and pre-med. He has a girlfriend, Allison, and an English bulldog, Cooper; he lives in an apartment and has a new car; he paints, sculpts and plays eight instruments. He hopes to be a doctor one day, specializing in psychiatry or neuroscience, or maybe he’ll pursue a postgraduate degree in psychology, that will allow him to work with veterans.
He just wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day.
Zacchilli, who learned about Sinclair’s struggles through emails and discussions during his time as a Saint Leo student, calls him a “strong student who is highly motivated.”
He's also highly motivating.
“I am inspired by his story because it shows how dedicated he was to his education,” she says. “He was able to overcome many obstacles and was successful.”
“I know others out there have been in worse situations than I have, but I strongly encourage anyone going through rough waters to seek out help and preoccupy themselves with the variable of education,” Sinclair says. “I believe that the two worst things anybody can do in life are to not ask questions and to not try.”
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Images Courtesy of John Sinclair