First in family
Like many MBA graduates with full-time jobs, Shawn Horton occupies a travel-heavy schedule.
This past summer, his projects led him to Atlanta, Zurich, and Brussels. He’s been with his company, Wheelabrator Group, going on 25 years. Mexico is also a routine destination for the Woodstock, Ontario based director of product development, North America. A few years ago, Shawn was tasked to lead the development of its manufacturing facility in Monterrey, Mexico.
While his work disposition is typically steady and focused, in recent years, he found himself in a couple of dodgy situations in Mexico that threatened to crumple his game face—and, possibly, the timing of his AU graduation, last June. The first, happened hours before returning to Canada from Monterrey. Shawn was heading out to dinner and went to retrieve his truck. It was parked in a shopping mall lot—his laptop inside the vehicle. Or, so he thought. Turns out, a couple of thugs had lifted it—MBA notes and all. The lot was supposedly safe; manned through tower surveillance. The heist, however, was covert, planned, and happened to involve the guard ‘on duty’ that day. Fortunately, the VMware virtual machine he had purchased at he start of his program, was a lifesaver. Once he got back to Canada, he was able to run the backup to access his AU course materials from his stolen notebook. Only a couple of pages were lost in the ether. Shawn says that software was the “best investment he’d ever made.”
The second fiasco happened along the Mexican highway en route to the airport when Shawn and a colleague were returning to Canada. Shawn was the passenger, his co-worker the driver. Shawn was nose-deep into his MBA notes, when, out of the blue, the pair found themselves whizzing amidst a real-time shootout between Mexican police and a getaway car. The latter was occupied by members of the Los Zetas gang, the in cartel in the region. The driver had just broken his buddy out of the jail (located four kilometres from Shawn’s company’s plant). The duo still got to the airport safely, though—the driver gunning it pedal-to-the-metal, while avoiding a spray of bullets along the way. Shawn admits he had one thing on his mind at the time: ‘Could I just get home to my family and graduate already?!’ Yet the way he recounts his Mexican mishaps, you’d think he was talking about yesterday’s lunch; he is that matter-of-fact. It’s likely because nothing really surprises him anymore; as a youth, he endured a far more distressing period—one which put his future educational plans in a holding pattern, indefinitely.
Most kids don’t have to hold down the family fort before they graduate high school. But in the fall of 1985, at the age of 16, when many teens are looking forward to homecoming or hanging out with their friends, Shawn was forced to support his family of six. They were living in Oakville, Ontario, and his father had fallen into some precarious financial problems. Unbeknownst to any of them, the 40-year-old, head of the Horton house had, for some time, been swirling in tepid waters of debt that were slowly inching toward scalding. That spring, the dam finally burst. A series of bad pecuniary moves put Horton Sr., an insurance salesman, on the wrong side of the law. “He had created an elaborate ruse, if you will,” says Shawn. “It was financing everything he was doing.” One thing led to another and, says Shawn, “the only way he could see his way clear was to make an unlawful withdrawal from a bank.” It was a withdrawal that led to an almost two-year prison sentence. The household bank accounts, including that which held Shawn’s would-be university tuition, now showed up empty. His dad had also frittered away the re-mortgage of the mortgage. While he still managed to graduate from Grade 12, at 17 (as valedictorian, no less), his teenage dreams of attaining a college or university degree—and more importantly—of being the first in his family to ever achieve such a milestone — were crushed. “When dad went away that option went away,” reflects Shawn. “Now I had to step up and help support the family.”
Others experiencing similar past plights might have allowed their circumstances to get the best of them — clamping down and hampering their chances for a flourishing future. Yet, as most sagas go, there are some bright sides to Shawn’s story. First, the unsavoury chain of events from his youth are what ultimately led to his father’s eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder — “the ruses were the by-products of mental illness,” says Shawn.“He had to keep them going in order to save face and stay afloat. It was the disease that drove him to do what he did.” Somehow, this six-foot tall, mild-mannered man was able to invoke his inner Hulk, bust through his restraints, and summon the gumption to forge ahead. He took a job in drafting, while his mother continued to work in her regular low-salaried retail job. Through his twenties, Shawn rose through the ranks of what essentially turned out to be a promising engineering career, seeking out valuable experiences, networks, and mentorship along the way. “I learned the ropes and the formulas I needed to get by — from other engineers who already had the education,” he says.
In 2011, his company offered to fund his MBA. He jumped at the chance to apply to AU’s program, but felt a bit nervous given his lack of possessing any past post-secondary education. “‘How do I write an essay?’; ‘How do I put a thesis together?’” Shawn pondered, before deciding to embark on an intensive, 12-month period of MBA ‘prep work.’ His years of work experience, coupled with letters of recommendation from senior engineering management, deemed him a good candidate. By 2014, he was enrolled in AU’s Faculty of Business MBA program. Last year, he graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average.“It was a tough go. I’m happy to say that I’m a selfmade guy. I owe nothing to anyone other than a lot of gratitude to those who did support me,” says Shawn. He points to AU’s asynchronous environment and his own self discipline as factors for his success. He quickly learned to re-prioritize work activities like entertaining clients, saying ‘no’ more frequently, and hunkering head-down into his coursework,continually keeping his eye on the prize. He recalls the time he had to prep for his exams, rink-side, during his son’s hockey playoffs. Borrowing from Disney’s ‘Dory’ character from the Finding Nemo sequel, Shawn’s advice to future learners is deadpan and direct: “Just keep swimming.”
“Being the first in my family to graduate university — to hold a degree — represents a turning point for others to look upon. The next generation of my family now says, ‘Look what Shawn’s managed to do!’”
So does the previous generation. Last June, at convocation in Athabasca, Alberta, Shawn’s dad, now 74 and stabilized, reformed and content (and still married to Shawn’s mother) told his son he was “as proud as a peacock.” Most importantly, Shawn explains, is having the accreditation that accompanies a degree — something he equates to a ‘validation’ of his chosen pathway. It’s also the key message he wants to impart to his 21-year old daughter and teenaged son — both of whom, he notes, now see the value in graduating more than ever before. Obviously a fan of the metaphor, Shawn likens completing his MBA program to ‘eating an elephant: one bite at a time.’ And though it took him a while to get to that starting point, once he took the plunge, he was ready and armed with his degree in a flash — his first — completed in two-and-a-half years, at nearly 50-years-old. Not bad for a full-time working father of two and a husband to one (Lorri, a very happy spouse). Excellent for anyone and definitely better late than never.