Comebacker Feature: Shantoya Smith

In last month’s issue of The Lightbulb we introduced you to Ms. Shantoya Smith, a Reconnector from Detroit who was quoted in this New York Times article, They Have Debt But No Degree. We recently sat down with Ms. Smith, and we are delighted to share more about her lived experience as a Reconnector with our readers. 

As our readers learned last month, Ms. Smith studied business and has earned two associate degrees, as well as a certificate in digital marketing. While she qualified for and received Pell grants along the way, she also has about $37,000 in student loan debt. Her end goal is a Bachelor’s degree.

Ms. Shantoya Smith, Reconnector from Detroit Drives Degrees

While she aspires to parlay her degrees and certificate into a white collar profession one day, Smith is very open about her life and experience working in strip clubs. “I am very comfortable talking with anyone about my life. My life is uncomfortable for a lot of people, so I try to make people feel at home,” Smith commented. 

She has put her education to use in novel ways. Take for example how she arrived at business as her chosen field of study: 

I have studied so much stuff, and I have learned so much stuff. It is so amazing. When I first started out [in higher education], I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so a lot of time was wasted with a liberal arts degree. I was afraid to go into business because I was a stripper. I said to myself, ‘Strippers don’t do business.’ I regret that it took me a long time to understand that what I was doing was business. It was an aha moment that took me ten years to realize. At a club where I was working, there was a sign on the wall that talked about salesmanship. Business is all about sales. The sign asked how many dances do you need to do to get so many dollars? And I said, well you know, if you take the emotion out of what you are doing, and you understand that what you are doing is business, you do well. It’s just a numbers game. It’s about economics not emotion, and I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t take Economics 101. Then I took graphic design so that I could build websites for dancers, so I ended up using the education even if I didn’t earn the degree. 

Typical of many Comebackers, Ms. Smith has had many starts and stops along the way, but she is determined to persevere. In fact, she credits her ability to persevere to her navigator, Dr. Michelle Cyrus, at Detroit Drives Degrees who she calls her “rock.” 

My family doesn’t care about education, so I’m sad about that. When I ran out of financial aid, had it not been for her [Dr. Michelle Cyrus], I would not have had financial relief. She was making sure that there were scholarships and the school knew about my situation and who I was. She was there, and I cried on her shoulder. She spent so much time talking to me. She offered her help – she wanted me to win as much as, or more than, I wanted to win. I achieved because I knew I had a cheerleader, and she was always supportive. I call her my rock, and I love her for that, and I tell her that all the time. ‘If it wasn’t for you, I probably would have quit again.’ Your friends matter, and she was my friend. 

In our conversation with Smith, she waxed philosophically several times on the meaning of failure and what she learned from being a marathon runner: 

I quit a lot of things that I start. It wasn’t until I started running marathons that I discovered that I wasn’t a quitter. It was really hard and I didn’t have anyone to lean on. But I had the other runners. You fail a lot in sports. As you get forward, you fail, as you get to higher levels, you are going to fail. You have to get that mindset. 

She says at first she was embarrassed by all her starts and stops in higher education over the past decade joking that, “I could have been a doctor by now.” But to her, education – like running – is a journey and not necessarily a destination: 

The degree is not the answer – I have this degree – the next question is how it can be used. People don’t ask that question and they don’t understand why they can’t make that degree work for them. It’s only worth it if I know what to do with it. We are pushed to the limit with student loans and debt and it is not working. Let the graduates know that they are going to have to lean on more than the institution [and take the time necessary to] build their network. 

Another theme that came through in our conversation with Smith is the relationship between poverty, lack of support systems, and failure to thrive in higher education.   

It’s embarrassing to fail a lot. But once you get over it. When you are poor there is no success, so you don’t understand the cycle. Even if it takes until I’m 60. Those stories are important to hear that people didn’t succeed until they were 60. So many of us are scared. Everyone has fear of failure, but when you keep failing you know you are going to fail some more. You start to wonder if you can afford all these failures. 

She admits that she gets irritated by people who think that they succeeded on their own, when in reality they had very strong support systems. 

I knew this gentleman who was a doctor, and he said that he paid for school for himself, but that’s not the same story as mine. The circumstances and the background are completely different. He had a family who was there for him growing up. Some people don’t understand that even the smallest amount of support can change your life. 

According to Smith, many people don’t understand the level of support they have, and most don’t like admitting if they are poor. But she doesn’t have a problem with it as she explained, “being poor is just a state of wealth – it can change.”  

You can be poor and making it, and you can be poor and just really poor. There are levels to poor in the same way there are levels to wealth. Poor is a lack of wealth. You can have someone who is getting by who is poor, or you can have someone who is poor and doesn’t have a place to live, but they are not yet homeless. I have been housing insecure basically my whole life. In high school, I moved every year. I was always in trouble – meaning I could be on the street in a heartbeat. People don’t necessarily understand that that is a trajectory point. There is not a level playing field. I remained poor for a long time. People don’t like to discuss that. But it has to be discussed when it comes to education because education wasn’t meant for poor people. There is an opportunity cost to education. 

In case some of her philosophy is sounding familiar, you may recognize it from one of her favorite books, Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert T. Kiyosaki. “People think that being poor is so negative. You don’t learn that it’s not, until you just learn that it is a state of where you are that can be changed,” she explained. According to Smith, there is a distinct difference between poor choices and dumb choices, and if you are poor, you are probably going to make what she calls ‘poor people choices’ that are not necessarily dumb choices. 

In our time together, we felt just as Ms. Smith hoped we would – at home. We have no doubt that Ms. Smith’s story has inspired you in the same way that it is inspiring us! Drop us a line and let us know your thoughts – we will happily pass them on to Ms. Smith, and we may even publish a few in our next Lightbulb. If you’ve got an inspirational story to share, we’d love to hear from you

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