Originally published on the Udacity blog by Stuart Frye, VP for Business Development
This deserving scholarship recipient overcame incredible odds to earn this opportunity, and he's now on the path to achieving a career dream he's harbored since childhood!
Sean Medlin is a young man, but he's already experienced a great deal of hardship in his life. He's had to overcome the kinds of obstacles that too often stop people's dreams in their tracks, but he's never given up. Sustained by a lifelong love for computers, an unshakeable vision for his future, and a fierce commitment to learning, Sean has steadfastly pursued his life and career goals. He's done so against the odds, often without knowing whether anything would pan out.
Today, Sean Medlin is a Grow with Google Developer Scholarship recipient, on active duty in the US Air Force, with a Bachelor of Computer Science degree. He's married to a woman he says is "the best in the world" and he's just become a father for the second time. It's been a long journey for a boy who lost his sister to cancer before he'd reached adulthood, and whose official education record listed him as having never made it past the eighth grade.
But Sean keeps finding a way forward.
The experience of getting to know people like Sean is almost too powerful to describe, but experiences like these are at the heart of why the Grow with Google Developer Scholarship is such an impactful initiative for us. It's one thing to read the numbers at a high level, and feel joy and amazement that literally thousands of deserving learners have been able to advance their lives and careers through the scholarship opportunities they've earned. However, it's an entirely different experience to witness the transformative power of opportunity at the individual, human level. One person. Their life. Their dreams. Their challenges, and their successes.
It's our pleasure and our honor to introduce you to Sean Medlin, and to share his story.
You've spoken about your love for computers; when did that begin?
When I was around eight or nine, I inherited a computer from my parents and just started picking it apart and putting it back together. I fell in love with it and knew it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. By the time I reached the seventh grade I decided on a computer science degree, and knew I was already on the path to it—I was top of math and science in my class at that point.
And then things changed for your family. What happened?
My sister, who was just a year old at the time, was diagnosed with cancer; stage four. For the next several years, she fought it, and at one point beat it; but unfortunately, it came back. When she relapsed, she started receiving treatments at a research hospital about eight hours from where we lived. Because of this, our family was constantly separated. My brothers and I usually stayed at family and friend's houses. Eventually, my parents pulled us out of school so we could travel with them. We stayed at hotels or the Ronald McDonald house, really wherever we could find a place to stay. We eventually moved to Memphis, where the hospital is located. During all of this, I was homeschooled, but I really didn't learn a whole lot, given the circumstances. When my sister passed away, our family went through a terrible time. I personally took it hard and became lackadaisical. Eventually, I decided that regardless of what wrenches life was throwing me, I would not give up on my dream.
So you were still determined to further your education; what did you do?
Well, in what was my senior year, I decided to start thinking about college. I started googling, and the first thing I discovered is that I needed a high school diploma. So I found my way to the education boards in Oklahoma. I learned that I was never properly registered as a homeschool student. So my record shows that I dropped out of school my eighth grade year. I was pretty devastated. My only option was to go and get my GED*, so that's what I did.
Computer science was still your passion; were you able to start pursuing it after earning your GED?
Well, I had to take a lot of prerequisites before I could even start a computer science degree. I mean, a lot! Which was frustrating, because it took more money than I had. I tried applying for financial aid, but I wasn't able to get very much. I looked like an eighth grade dropout with a GED. That's all anyone saw.
So you found another way to pay for your schooling; what was that?
I decided to join the United States Air Force. I couldn't pay for my own education anymore, and the Air Force was offering tuition assistance. That was the best option I had. I have no military history in my family, and at first my friends and family were against the idea, worried I'd be overseas too much. But I was determined I was going to finish school and get my computer science degree and work in this field.
It sounds like the work you started doing in the Air Force wasn't really related to your desired career path, but you were still able to continue your education?
That's right. The career path I joined was supposedly tech-related, but it wasn't. I enlisted as a munition systems technology troop, or in other words, an ammo troop. It wasn't really in line with my goals, but the tuition assistance made it possible for me to keep studying computer science online. There was a tuition assistance cap though, and between that, and how much my supervisors were willing to approve, I was only able to take two classes per semester. But I kept plugging away, even using my own money to pay for some of it. It took me eight years while working in the Air Force, but I completed my computer science degree last March. I finished with a 3.98 GPA and Summa Cum Laude, the highest distinction!
That's an outstanding accomplishment, congratulations! Did you feel ready to enter the field and start working at that point?
Not at all! I definitely learned that I wasn't prepared for the programming world based just off my bachelor's degree. It taught me all the fundamentals, which was great. I learned the theory, and how to program, but I didn't really learn how to apply what I'd learned to real-world situations.
You'd had a great deal of experience with online learning by that point; is that where you went looking to determine your next steps?
Yes! I tried everything. I did some free web development boot camps. I discovered Udemy, and tried a bunch of their courses, trying to learn different languages. Then I found Udacity. I started off with free courses. I really fell in love with Java, and that's what initially brought me to Udacity's Android courses. The satisfaction of making an app, it just pulled me in. It was something I could show my wife, and my friends. I knew it was what I wanted to pursue.
And then you heard about the Google Scholarship?
Well, I was actually working out how I was going to pay for a Nanodegree program myself when the scholarship opportunity emerged. I applied, and was selected for the challenge course. I knew when I got selected, that I only had three months, and that they were going to pick the top 10 percent of the students, after those three months were up, to get the full scholarship. My son was only about a year old then, and my wife became pregnant again right when I found out about the scholarship. I told her, "I'm going to knock this course out as fast as possible. But I need you to help me buckle down." She took care of my son as much as possible, and I finished the challenge course in about two weeks. I was determined. I wanted to show I could do it. Afterwards, I became one of the student mentors and leaders, and constantly stayed active in the channels and forums. I just did as much as I could to prove my worth.
Those efforts paid off, and you landed a full Google Scholarship for the Android Basics Nanodegree program. And now you have some good news to share, is that right? Yes, I successfully completed the Android Basics Nanodegree program on July 29th!
How are you approaching your career goals differently now?
Well, completing the projects in my Nanodegree program really improved my confidence and performance in technical interviews. When I first graduated with my bachelor's degree, I applied for a few jobs and went through a couple technical interviews. I felt completely lost, and became nervous about doing them going forward. Once I completed the Nanodegree program, I went through another technical interview and felt so prepared. I knew every answer, and I knew exactly what I was talking about.
As it turns out, you've actually earned new opportunities within the Air Force. Can you
tell us about that?
The base I'm at is considered an IT hub for the Air Force, and the Air Force recently decided to start building mobile apps organically, utilizing our service members. Soon after this was decided, senior leadership began searching for the best and brightest programmers to fill this team. I was not only recommended, but they looked over my projects from the Nanodegree program, and deemed I was one of the most qualified! Normally, opportunities like this are strictly prohibited to anyone outside the requested Air Force specialty code, so I wasn't getting my hopes up. That restriction didn't stop senior leadership. As of right now, I'm part of the mobile app team, and the only ammo troop developing mobile apps for the Air Force, in the entire world!
So what does the future hold for you next?
I feel like the last 15 years of my life have been leading up to where I'm at now. I want to pursue a job as a software developer—an Android developer, in Silicon Valley! Ever since I was a kid, I've had the dream of being a developer at Blizzard. I was a huge World of Warcraft nerd during my homeschooled years. However, I'm okay if I fall a little short of that. I really just want to be surrounded by other programmers. I want to learn from them. It's what I've always wanted. To become a programmer. The idea of leaving the military is really scary though. The thought of not being able to get a job … it's scary, it's a lot of different emotions. But my aspiration is to become a full-time software developer for a big tech company, in a nice big city.
How does your wife feel about all of this?
My wife is the best woman in the world. She wants to follow me wherever the wind takes us. She's very proud of me, and I'm very proud of her too. She does a lot. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without her. That's for sure.
I think I speak for everyone at Udacity when I say that no one here has any doubt you'll achieve whatever you set out to achieve!
It's often said that hindsight is 20/20, and in hindsight, it's tempting to say we helped create the Grow with Google Developer Scholarship just for people like Sean. To say that, however, would be doing a disservice to him. His journey, and his accomplishments, are unique. The truth is, we didn't know who we'd meet when we launched this initiative. Yet here we are today, celebrating all that Sean has accomplished!
To have played a role in his story is an honor we couldn't have predicted, but it's one we'll treasure always.
Sean, congratulations on your success in the scholarship program, and for everything you've achieved. Whether you elect to stay in the military, or make your way to California with your family, we know you'll continue to do great things!
Growing Careers and Skills Across the US
Grow with Google is a new initiative to help people get the skills they need to find a job. Udacity is excited to partner with Google on this powerful effort, and to offer the Developer Scholarship program.
Grow with Google Developer scholars come from different backgrounds, live in different cities, and are pursuing different goals in the midst of different circumstances, but they are united by their efforts to advance their lives and careers through hard work, and a commitment to self-empowerment through learning. We're honored to support their efforts, and to share the stories of scholars like Sean.