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Phoenix Forward magazine

Education helped reshape this alum’s future

Ron Smith (left), Doctor of Management
in Organizational Leadership, 2010

Ron Smith wasn’t ready for college after high school. Yet today, he holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from University of Phoenix, is working on publishing a book and teaches courses at two universities.

“I’ve exceeded any expectation I ever set for myself,” Smith says. “I always tried to be good at whatever I did — I was the best darn forklift driver I could be when I was a kid. But my earlier self had very few expectations at all.”

Education, he says, reshaped his future. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and learned data processing. That helped him get accepted into the service’s Signal Corps, where he served for 22 years.

Thanks to his military education benefits and a supportive wife, Smith also earned his associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees along the way.

“With each degree, my prospects changed,” he says. “The world just opened up.”

With each degree, my prospects changed. The world just opened up.

Two days after retiring from the Army, he was hired by a technology company and defense contractor. As he climbed the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a senior vice president, Smith decided to get his doctorate. He was 55.

“Too old for more school?” he wondered.

Like any good scholar, Smith did some research. He learned that Ben Franklin was 70 when he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and 81 when he signed the Constitution. And Frank McCourt was in his 60s when he wrote the best-seller “Angela’s Ashes.”

“I guess you can call me a lifelong learner,” Smith says with a soft chuckle, his native Oklahoma drawl belying a natural drive and tenacity. “I’ve realized you’re never too old to learn something new.”

So in 2005, he went for it. “I felt pretty intimidated,” he recalls about the first weeks in his doctoral program. “There were so many different disciplines all together; so many creative people in my cohort. I had to relearn how to study and change the way I look at things. And yes, I had to work really hard.”

He graduated in 2010 and again credits his wife, along with his classmates and dissertation committee, for helping him reach his goal.

Success and support are important to Smith, thanks to a promise he made to his dissertation chair. “She told me that if she mentored me,” he says, “it would be my responsibility to do the same; to give back.”

As his dissertation began to take shape, his studies focused on the “survival strategies of successful small businesses in federal contracting,” and a new passion emerged.

Smith retired from corporate life to teach IT courses at Saint Leo University and the Fort Benning campus of Central Texas College. He also volunteers for SCORE, helping small-business owners launch their dream enterprises. This fall, he plans to publish a book for startup entrepreneurs and start a consulting business.

“We reinvent ourselves over and over throughout our lifetime,” Smith observes. “This is my third self.” At 62, he adds, it’s not the end but “just a new phase.”

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