Success, Defined: featuring Soledad O’Brien and Ivan Penado '12

Everybody talks about success, but what does it mean... really? In this Appalachian State University SoundAffect podcast, we ask a first-generation student from Appalachian and award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, who started the Starfish Foundation as a bridge for young women between obstacles and opportunity, to define what success means to them.

SoundAffect podcasts are conversations with smart people about stuff that affects the world, and how we affect it. Hosted by Megan Hayes.


  • Intro: From Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, this is SoundAffect. Here’s your host, Megan Hayes.

    Megan Hayes: A lot of us never questioned we’d get a college education – even if we’re in hock up to our eyeballs paying for it. And many of us simply expect this for our children. But imagine for a moment, if you can, what it would be like to never even consider you could go to college, and then suddenly, someone tells you you can. And that someone helps you get there — and then helps you through – all the way through. I recently had the chance to talk about the importance of having an opportunity to earn a college education with two really smart and amazing individuals, who, incidentally, have almost nothing in common.

    Ivan Penado '12: Um well I’m Ivan Penado…I graduated 2011 in December. 2007 was my high school graduation date. I graduated with a degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology and I had a couple of minors and yeah…Oh, I’m from Durham. I grew up in Durham.

    MH: Ivan is a graduate of Appalachian’s ACCESS program, which is a four-year scholarship program for first-generation college students. ACCESS is an acronym for Appalachian Commitment to a College Education for Student Success. And it opens up opportunities for kids who never dreamed they might have a college education. Ivan explains it better than I ever could…

    IP: I think that for people who don’t have that chance to attend college and all of a sudden they’re provided that access through the programs here at Appalachian I think it instills this really strong sense of perseverance…that you’ve accomplished something. Honestly, I think that is more important than kinda the physical nature of what the program provides in terms of allowing students to come to school but like when you give someone a chance to feel that warmth you know that sense that they can accomplish something, I think that’s lasting. You know I think that lasts so much longer than going to school for four years. That’s important too…getting an education is obviously very important and that’s the basis of that program but like when you give someone that sense of power over their own life, you’re accomplishing something really huge. Sometimes I think it takes a certain amount of introspection for people to really understand that that’s what’s happening in their lives at the moment. For me it took having graduated and looking back at what that did for me emotionally. I was like , “Man…that that’s the lasting impact. That’s what ACCESS did for me.” It’s really given me a sense that I can…that I can accomplish whatever it is I want to accomplish. That was a small step. It was something that I thought was inaccessible and all of a sudden you know you open that door and it’s like, “Man…like there’s a world out there.”

    MH: Ivan will tell you there was plenty of academic rigor, and he learned a lot in the classroom, and this is not to be dismissed. College is not easy – certainly not at Appalachian – and like everyone else he had to work hard to succeed. But what sets his college experience apart is how he learned what it was like to be in a community – a family – really for the first time.

    IP: Yeah…Umm and I think with my experiences simply because I kind of grew up in a broken home in the sense that I was never really close to my parents. My dad was always kind of in and out of jail and both my parents are first generation Amer…They traveled from El Salvador to escape the war and they ended up here in the US and uh. So for me like umm, I never really had a strong sense of a parental roles umm in my life and so when I came to Appalachian and you have the everyone is assigned a mentor and you have also your advisor as well who stays with you throughout your entire four years here at App which I think is amazing I mean to have that kind of intimate relationship with someone for so long. Those people almost become parental figures. They kinda became that you know for me. Just you know making sure that I was attending classes or that I was making an effort to kind of reach out and do different things on campus you know socially and to take on leadership roles. I think it’s a really cool way to kind of create this sense of family cause I think that for a lot of us it’s something that we maybe didn’t experience a lot of strongly growing up. We weren’t always told that college was something that we can do that you know I think for a lot of us we were students who kind of slipped between the cracks in public education. We had like these assigned study hours my freshman year. They kind of turned into these social gatherings with me and a lot of the other ACCESS scholars and I just remember just really enjoying that time to get to know where other people are from and kind of this familial sense of brotherhood you know you’re in the ACCESS program you get to know these people really closely and really well and you share advisors and you share mentors and it just…I felt like this union making me feel important like making me feel like I’m someone and I’d never really felt that before…so…

    MH: It’s hard to express just how profound an experience this is. Suddenly, relationships are equalized. The re-boot button has been pushed and everything starts fresh. You go from being that kid no one would look at twice, if they even looked at you at all… you go from being that kid people didn’t want to think about, avoided, maybe even feared… to a new place where none of that exists. You’re suddenly a person people pay attention to, a person people smile at, reach out to, fuss at for not doing your homework or ironing your pants. You’re no longer a statistic. You are a vital part of a community. And there’s something about having the security of a community around you that allows for challenging conversations — about stuff that can be really difficult to stay civil about — to take place…and relationships come out intact, or even stronger, on the other side. Here’s Ivan again:

    IP: This is a moment that kind of sticks out in my head and this is an amazing girl but I remember speaking to my friend about where my parents were from and she made the statement she said, “Oh, wait a minute. You’re not from Mexico?” and I said, “Uh no…no.” and she said, “Oh I thought all Spanish speaking people were from Mexico.” Which is fine and then I was explaining to her that that wasn’t the case and I just remember her face being like, “Oh my…” like she she really didn’t know but at the same time she was so eager to learn. You know? I just remember like kind of like falling in love with that moment. I can tell you everyone who was in that room and the time and I was…it was a wonderful moment for me. And then people know me and they’re like, “Ivan you didn’t get mad?” and I was like, “Hahaha no!” Like you could just really tell that she didn’t know and it was I mean that’s fair there are so many things that some of us don’t know and it just requires someone to teach us and next thing you know, we carry that knowledge with us forever and now we know the difference.

    MH: So… this conversation could have had dramatically different results. And, let me just say, Ivan's a pretty incredible person, and he very well may have had the exact same conversation with the same results in a different setting had he not gone to college, but then again… it’s those powerful learning experiences that take place outside of class that connect the classroom education… that mode of thinking we have to shift to… in order to open ourselves up to new ways of understanding so we can think about scientific discovery within the context of social history, and philosophy and art… when we learn this mode of thinking in the classroom, we are open to thinking about our out-of-class experiences differently. And when those two worlds come together, some really amazing learning takes place.

    MH: When we come back, we’ll continue this conversation with award-winning journalist, news anchor, producer and author Soledad O’Brien.

    Break: Connect with Appalachian State University on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Youtube. This podcast, along with a lot of other stories we think are interesting, and some really amazing photography and videos, can be found online at .

    MH: It’s so easy in our soundbyte-saturated world to view a kid like Ivan through the “poor kid” lens. We do it all the time – and the more we do it, the more they themselves begin to perceive everything… including what they don’t deserve… through that same lens. But when we allow ourselves to view others as multi-dimensional, see them in different contexts, then a new world opens up, and we’re all the better for it. It’s about this very topic that we were fortunate enough to be able to speak to… Soledad O’Brien. When she visited our campus recently. O’Brien holds a list of accolades and career experiences that will make your head spin, but the one that really made us sit up and take notice is one of her most recent projects. In 2010 she and her husband Brad Raymond founded the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Starfish Foundation. This foundation makes a college education possible for young women who don’t have a lot of options, and really for whom college would otherwise not be in the realm of possibility.

    Soledad O’Brien: No one ever advocates for rich kids to not go to college. There’s no big movement of, “Listen kids just don’t need to go.” It’s Its, “Should you get into debt to go to college?” Right? So its uh which is really a a different thing. There’s no one who’s saying, “More learning is bad!” You know? “You should just stop as quickly as you can!” So the question is really about debt and I agree I think we have to figure out how to not have students graduate with just tons and tons of debt it’s really really challenging. Certainly my girls have that issue. But again we have these conversations with poor kids all the time. “Well what are they…what’s the bare minimum that they need? Do they really need to go to school? Do they need to...” I hate that. “Why do they need to enjoy a museum? I mean they’re poor!” …you know and, “They’re only gonna be worth it if they end up being an investment banker at the other end of it.” It’s just insane. You know? I think the way we value human beings is what they can contribute under the umbrella of what they’re interests are.

    MH: Success is something we talk about a lot in higher ed. In the first place, you can’t even get to college unless you’ve been successful in high school. And when we court successful young teenagers to college, we tell them they will be successful when they graduate. We tell them stories about and introduce them to successful alumni. It’s easy to want to say, “look this kid came from the projects and now he’s running a Fortune 500 company,” because that’s an easy sell. But as Soledad O’Brien explains, when we truly value people, we don’t measure success with a one-size-fits-all metric.

    SO: I’m very careful not to put my measurements of success onto other people. You know if you’re a passionate person and doing work that helps others then you’re successful. And not everybody’s gonna graduate immediately. Right? I mean, I graduated 15 years after the rest of my class did. I took time off. I was very successful at work. And then eventually when I was pregnant with my first daughter I went back. And I think if you do the math by, “Well when did you graduate?” Then I was a failure. I finished 15 years later than everybody. But I think most people would say I’ve been pretty successful in the field that I was interested in. So I’m always hesitant to sort of say like, “Check the box! Success or not success?” Human beings…we’re sort of like clay and you sort of mold and create and you come out the other end and you hope you’ve sort of put something out into the world that can help other people and keep it going. So I think what we do is we ask people to invest in a girls future because if you do that we know….and certainly with girls…. That it can impact their community and if can impact their community then you really can start making change. Whether that girl is an investment banker, she’s a nurse, she is a janitor in her her local community as long as she’s doing good productive work and something that she loves that’s all that matters.

    MH: Appalachian is a state-funded institution that is heavily reliant on private support. We answer to legislators as well as donors, granting institutions and sometimes even corporate sponsors. We find ourselves making the case for funding different projects, including scholarships, frequently. And sometimes we fall into a trap of trying to explain why we’ve invested so much time and resources into the education of just one person. The Starfish Foundation is also privately supported, so I asked Soledad O’Brien if she has similar challenges in justifying the impact of dedicating a high level of concentrated resources, which include time and money, into a few students.

    SO: That’s why we picked “The Starfish Foundation.” You know I was doing a documentary in Haiti and umm I would meet these missionaries who were doing the impossible you know they’re in Haiti after the earthquake. They had been there through the earthquake. And I would say “Why don’t you leave? Why are you here still? You have a passport. Everybody’s tryin to get out and you’re committing to staying. Why? And they’d help 50 orphans or 30 orphans or 70 orphans in a sea of 450,000 orphans. You know well what’s the point? And one of the missionaries…we were doing a documentary on her…named Suzette Manassero… and she said to me “Oh it’s a starfish story!” and I said, “I don’t know what that is.” She said “You know the starfish story. A boy is walking along the beach… the tides gone out and all these starfish have been beached on the sand and he starts picking them up and chucking them back into the water. And a man comes up to him and says “What are you doing? This beach goes on for miles. Literally there’s a million starfish on this beach. It’s a complete waste of your time.” And the kid picks up a starfish and looks at it and says, “Well I guess it matters to this one.” And chucks it in. I love that story because it really made sense of…How do you make a difference? How do you make a commitment in a sea that seems so vast that why would your little commitment matter. You know and by… by math it doesn’t. Right? Anybody doing the math would say, “This is a complete waste of time.” And yet, I think there is this philosophy that it does matter. Those little drips and drabs do matter. I had the same…you know…worries about our foundation. We send 25 girls to college but it’s not 25,000 girls….and we could you know there’s a lot of kids who need help. So I don’t think you can ever sit around and kind of do the math on “Well this doesn’t make sense.” Or “Oh it’s too small. Nobody will care. It’s not making an impact.” I love that story cause it’s all about every little bit matters.

    MH: So the idea is, to simply unlock a door – and work to keep it unlocked. Because some of us have the luxury of getting to screw up and recover from it. And for others…There’s no wiggle room.

    SO: Some people’s mistakes are their own dumb mistakes that they have caused upon themselves. And sometimes people are you know are victims of circumstance. Things have just happened unto them. It sort of doesn’t matter to me its, “Can they be successful?” Someone comes in to give them as we like to say, a push… a pull… a shove. I like to tell the young ladies when they join us, “Oh, you will graduate from college. It may kill us all but you will graduate.” Same thing I tell my own children and that was really part of I think our structure was what would I do for my kids? For my kids if they were struggling in say…math. Right? I’d bring in a tutor. I wouldn’t say, “Ohhhh you’ve fallen below 3.4. Our scholarship doesn’t really cover that anymore. Sorry. You know apply again!” We’d say, “Okay well obviously we need to jettison this job you have because you need more time to study and you need a tutor so now your Tuesdays and Thursdays are gonna be taken up by a tutor and we’re going to get you through this class.” You know because if you wanna be successful we all know you just have to tackle the problem, get support for it and move through it. So many people get undermined by smallish things they just can’t recover from and those are the things that keep them from graduating from college.

    College is one of those things you have to see through. It’s a lot. You know? And people get undermined because the academics are challenging. They get undermined because someone back at home gets sick. They get undermined because they run out of money. They get undermined because they break up with a boyfriend and just emotionally they’re challenged…Right? There’s a bunch of things that can knock you out of the game. There is this buffer if you’re middle class. When I charged up my phone bill in school and it was $400.00 my father sat me down and chewed me out. You know and but there was never a moment where it was like, “I guess I’m not going to go to college.” You know my girls…if they don’t pay their phone bill, there’s nobody who steps in and yells at them and pays it. You know there’s nobody who says here’s how we fix this stupid decision that you made…this idiotic move that you have done because you’re a 20 year old and that’s kind of the process of learning and growing. They have no second chances at all. You know and if you’re middle class like I was you have tons of second chances. You do stupid things and you learn and you laugh about it later and your parents tell everybody the story about how dad yelled at you about your…you know. But there was never a moment where I was not gonna go back to college the next semester for a $400.00 bill.

    But there are so many students for whom that’s it! They’re done. They’re out. There’s no uncle auntie so and so to call up and ask for that money. It might as well be $100,000. There’s just no… That money does not exist. So I I really…it kinda pissed me off and it just seemed unfair. And one of the things that we had to work very hard at was letting these girls understand that they were not victims. That they weren’t chosen because they had a really you know boo hoo sad story. They were chosen because they had done so well. That they had actually gotten themselves a very long distance without any help. That…that actually makes you more successful than most of the people around you who don’t have that whether their daddies are running companies or not.

    MH: If you had to guess, what percentage of Americans would you say have a undergraduate education? I don’t know about you, but I way over-guessed this one. According to our last census, nearly 31% of people age 25 and older in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree. This is an increase of just over 4% over ten years, and the increase in undergraduate education is consistent across all previously under-represented populations… so… as a country, we’re more educated than ever. But it still seems pretty low to me – I mean, this is America – the land of opportunity, where study after study shows that the more education people have, the more money they will make in their lifetimes. And money isn’t everything, but it means an increase in a standard of living. And it’s hard to argue that makes a difference in current and future generations. You can see it happen really quickly from one generation to the next, too. The thing about the ACCESS program and the Starfish Foundation that might be most remarkable is what they don’t do. They don’t define success. They offer options – and support – in the form of an education and a caring community. And in doing this, the students they serve are positioned to define their own success. These kids undertake… and most of them successfully navigate… some really significant challenges in their lives and in the classroom, and when they achieve a college diploma, several things happen. The most obvious is they’ve achieved a major goal with life-changing implications. Less obvious, to those who had fewer challenges along the way, is for these kids, they’ve moved the dial on their own self-worth. They now truly understand that they have done something really impressive, and this allows them to see possibilities they never could see before. Because, now, these kids get to define their own success.

    Outro: A very special thanks to our guests today, Ivan Penado and Soledad O’Brien, whose enthusiasm for opportunity and perspective on success is inspirational. Today’s show was written and produced by Troy Tuttle, Dave Blanks, and me, Megan Hayes. Our sound engineer is Dave Blanks. Our web team is Pete Montaldi and Alex Waterworth. Our theme song was written and performed by Derek Wycoff of Naked Gods. Our podcast studio is dedicated to Greg Cuddy. Special thanks to Stephen Dubner for the inspiration, advice and moral support. SoundAffect is a production of the University Communications team at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks for listening. For SoundAffect, I’m Megan Hayes.