From incarceration to GED to PhD: One man’s hope to teach


Shawn Gardner hopes to get the opportunity to come make a difference in the UK community.

Jericho Curry

The College of Agriculture’s Community Leadership and Development program has received a hopeful applicant, one who believes his life experiences can bring a valuable lesson to UK students.

Certain choices in life can completely change someone’s life for better or worse. Shawn L. Gardner decided to change for the better as he went from obtaining his GED to recently getting his doctorate.

“I got in trouble back in high school. Growing up, I made a lot of bad choices that got me in trouble with the law,” Gardner said.

At the age of 17, he made a decision that changed his life forever. He was arrested for breaking into a pawn shop and spent two years behind bars. Post being released from jail, Gardner returned to Louisville where he lived with a significant other until relocating to Radcliff, Kentucky, in Hardin County to live with an aunt after his mother died of cancer when he was 10.

Despite his bad decision, Gardner still had promise, and he has the report cards to back it up. After relocating to Hardin County, Gardner was able to find a program that offered GED courses that wasn’t far from his house while also working a graveyard shift to make money.

While giving a speech one time, Gardner said that someone yelled out “high school dropout.”

“Till that moment I never saw myself as a high school dropout,” Gardner said. “In my mind I didn’t drop out; I got locked up and in result I got kicked out of the school.”

Gardner didn’t hate school, and he spent a lot of time in the library. He said he lacked support to help keep him on track.

“I actually enjoyed school,” he said. Gardner said he believes he would have done better if he “had someone to be like wait a minute, this young guy has potential.”

Constantly facing adversity, Gardner wrote a book entitled “Me vs. Me” that has different editions about his navigating life from a GED to hopefully finishing out the series with his most recent accolades.

Gardner attended the University of Louisville as an English major. He left the institution in 1997 after he was struggling in school and later found out that he could not teach in a school due to his criminal record. It took Gardner 10 years to return back to school in 2008. He attended the satellite campus of Ottawa University located in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business management.

When Gardner got his degree from Ottawa, he did not have a lot of appreciation for it due to his attending the satellite campus in Indiana. After completing his undergrad, he was asked to come to Ottawa, Kansas, and speak to current undergrad students. There, he felt that he gained a little more respect in the institution and pride in his undergraduate degree.

After obtaining his undergraduate degree, he enrolled in Sullivan University in Louisville to pursue a master’s in conflict management. Sullivan University is the only institution in the state of Kentucky that has a conflict management program.

“I loved that aspect of life, overcoming conflict and dealing with it,” Gardner said.

Gardner’s master’s degree came with the completion of a capstone project that he still uses today when he visits schools and has conversations with predominately young black males about choices that they’re making and how to overcome adversity.

“Getting that degree was more application and more about taking what you find and putting it to use immediately,” Gardner said.

After completing his master’s degree in 2010, Gardner went on to attend Mississippi State University in 2015. He recently finished his doctorate degree after three years in agriculture sciences and extension services. During his search for doctoral programs, he applied to three different schools in the city of Louisville but did not get accepted to any of them. A colleague of Gardner reached out to him and informed him of the program at Mississippi State.

“He wanted to be an example and lead the pack,” said Tiye Seay, Community Support Assistant for Centersone, mental health facilities in Louisville, Ky. There was a lot of difficulties that Gardner faced through his many accolades. 

When asked how today’s youth can be impacted by Gardner’s journey, Seay said, “knowing whenever you face adversity it can always be turned into a positive and goals can be achieved. 

Gardner’s goals since recently obtaining his doctorate degree are to be able to give back and teach students who look like him and to make sure students have adequate support along with equal opportunities among their peers.

“At the end of the day, Dr. Gardner had a goal and he didn’t let his circumstances define his outcomes or stop him,” said Mia Farrell, interim director for the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Farrell went on to talk about how Gardner was able to succeed by keeping his goal in mind.

Now it’s a waiting game for Gardner before he finds out if he will be able to teach at UK or not.

One day, Gardner hopes that he will be seen at a university as a game changer and make an impact on students all across the community.