Middle school dropout and former apple orchard child laborer shares his journey to the Ivy League

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017

“I’m a high school dropout. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t fit the mold.”

Brennan Shearer is a first year student from a rural small town, Tehachapi, North of LA, pursuing a master in Development Practice. “Growing up poor I had never expected to go to college. Somehow I scrapped my way through jobs, school and the military and finally made it here. I expected in my head that not a lot of poor people study at SIPA,” Shearer proceeded to tell me in a recent interview.

Middle school drop out

He dropped out of middle school in 7th grade because his family was “really poor” and could barely provide for him and his two brothers. His father, a former maximum-security prison guard was nearly killed by a prisoner when Shearer was 7 years old. For 9 years after the accidents, he was incapable of working. His mother took care of the children and delivered newspapers from 11PM till 6AM to make ends meet.

Shearer is the youngest of the four brothers. They all moved out of the house when they found a job. “Essentially everyone was removing themselves from the burden by paying for themselves. And then it came time for me to remove myself as a burden to my parents.”

Apple orchard child worker

Luckily for Shearer, California employed a lot of illegal workers which meant he could get jobs in apple orchards and construction sites, even though he was underage. He managed to get his GED and joined the Marine Corps as a logistician at 17. While in the military, he started attending college courses in Finance which made him competitive when applying for jobs at Merrill Lynch, and PWC, companies that he said “don’t care where you’re from; they just care about your attitude.”

Shearer’s parents were very supportive of his decisions but they were not able to give him any career guidance because they were facing their own struggles. “They were still in bad shape for many, many years.” When Shearer joined the military, he was “more financially secure than [his] parents,” so he “always tried to help, fix things around the house, stock the fridge, because [his] parents needed it.”

Parents weren’t sure about him joining ‘elite’ Ivy League

Switching gears and coming to an Ivy League school was not an easy decision. Although supportive, his family is conflicted because “they think that people coming to places like this think that they’re smarter than them; that they are part of this very exclusive club; that they have disdain for people like them.”

Coming to Columbia, he says, was important because it will level the playing field for him and others like him. Ivy League admission is “a self-selection process”, he believes. The required high GRE or GMAT scores and work experience present a real challenge for poor students because they have been “so disadvantaged at every stage in their lives” and can rarely bring themselves to be competitive. Even though Shearer was working as a financial consultant, a job that requires acute reasoning, it took him 8 months to prepare for the GMAT exam when “normal smart people with proper education” need 100-150 hours. But he never lost faith. “I was confident that I would be able to hack it, make it, and I finally dug myself out of the hole that just being born into a poor family put me in.”

In the private sector, he worked hard to attain the “money, power and prestige” that he had never had growing up. Soon Shearer realized that he “worked a lot but didn’t really care about finance at all.” His military career took him to Asia where he saw “real poverty.” His own experience with poverty made him feel “really connected and close to those people that were suffering.”

Stuck between two worlds

As someone who moved from very humble beginnings to the private sector where I worked hard to climb the corporate ladder, I had to ask him about how well he connects with his roots as well as how he connects with Ivy League students. I often find myself stuck in the middle: I can no longer adjust to my previous life back in Romania and at the same time don’t relate to the American elite.

Shearer shares some of my feelings. “I go back to my own town and I don’t fit in in that area at all,” he tells me. “My parents now own a bunch of horses. I went back home over the summer and helped them move 150 hay bales.” Growing up the way he did made him feel “a little out of place in finance and at Columbia,” but that experience has given him a perspective that helped him in his career and in life. “It just made me very grateful for what I have, and what I’ve achieved,” he contended.

When it comes to SIPA, he easily fits in “on the surface.” “Working in finance for so long, I’ve just got the ultimate camouflage” and nobody thinks “I am any different than the other wealthy white elite kids that step into this school.” Under the surface, he doesn’t fit in. Growing up poor instilled a psychological mindset of limited potential.

“Poor people don’t work for Merrill Lynch or PWC.”

He felt the same uneasiness when joining large corporations in his previous roles. “Poor people don’t work for Merrill Lynch or PWC; it’s just not the path they take. Normally poor people that apply for these jobs are not white,” Shearer tells me referring to the diversity quotas companies need to fill. When applying for jobs, he remembers going to interviews “as a clean cut white guy, after the military taught [him] how to dress and act.”

Recognizes white privilege helped him

He is fully aware that the privilege of being white helped him overcome any insecurity related to his background. “Nobody bats an eye, nobody thinks I dropped out of school in 7th grade. Nobody would even ask. I showed up to interviews in a nice suit. Nobody would question a white guy applying for a finance job – that’s a path. I think if I didn’t have that going for me, it would have been a lot more difficult”.

Don’t need to fit in in order to understand self worth

Fitting in, he says, is not a must “to understand your values and your worth.” Recalling his own experience, Shearer told me that “growing up trying to achieve big things and having zero opportunities or help was really stressful.” Working from the age of 13, Shearer feels like he has been “around the block a little bit more than most of my peers, and a little more worn.” But, if a student doesn’t fit in at SIPA because of the different background, “it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality.” It doesn’t mean you’re less skilled, or knowledgeable or driven than anyone else,” he advises.

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