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How doctoral alumnus Ron Lewis went from unmotivated to motivational

By Laurie Davies

Jacksonville motivational speaker and real estate agent Ron Lewis likes to say he “went from a 1.3 to a PhD.” Technically, he’s finishing up a doctoral degree. But why split hairs? He’s on the road to achieving a level of education that only 1% to 2% of Americans have attained.

Today, the only blemish on his sterling journey to a doctorate in business administration is a single B+. For Lewis, a Dean’s List student, a Delta Mu Delta international honor society member and an otherwise straight-A student, it’s a level of success he could not have imagined 20 years ago.

That’s because 20 years ago, he was a freshman in high school with a 1.3 grade point average. By the time he should have been in 11th grade, he was still assigned a 9th-grade badge. “I didn’t have a 2.0, so they couldn’t move me up with my grade level,” he says.

He needed six years to finish high school and nine years to finish a bachelor’s degree. The low point was two semesters at Florida Community College (now Florida State College at Jacksonville) when he earned straight F’s — eight in all.

Why the struggle?

As Lewis puts it, he just didn’t connect with school. “I grew up in a two-parent household in a middle-class neighborhood with a two-car garage, green grass and palm trees,” he says. “There wasn’t anything that made me connect with poverty or the streets. For me, it was just laziness and procrastination.”

For years, he did the bare minimum to get by. Until he got to University of Phoenix (UOPX).

A wake-up call

Lewis would be the first to tell you he wasn’t ready for higher education when he went off to Florida Community College. He went out of fear. Fear of being left behind. Fear of letting down his mom. Fear that his job prospects would be limited.

But fear isn’t a great guide. Fear just whispers in your ear about failure, and it was a voice Lewis had come to know all too well.

Still, after an up-and-down tenure at community college, Lewis enrolled at UOPX. In time, that would prove to be the wake-up call he needed. But first, the economy tanked, Lewis shuttered his small printing business and, at age 22, he joined the U.S. Army.

During his four years of military service as an automated logistical specialist, Lewis worked on college in fits and starts. When he completed his military service at age 26, he decided to finally finish that bachelor’s degree.

The problem was, Lewis viewed UOPX just like he had viewed high school. “I realized University of Phoenix is not calling my mom to let her know I’m not turning my assignments in,” Lewis says. “These instructors were no joke. They were not going to accept me just writing something on a piece of paper to get a grade. And, believe me, I tried. I tried to test a few teachers and just turn in some work, hoping they would pass me.”

They didn’t.

He went on academic probation and was ultimately suspended.

That was the wake-up call Lewis needed to discover that, if he wanted a college degree, he was going to have to work. He finally connected with school, thriving in entrepreneurial business classes that tapped into something he was passionate about: creating a business plan, marketing strategy, branding and other creative aspects of business.

At last, in 2013 — nine years after he embarked on his collegiate career at Florida Community College — Lewis became the first one in his family to earn a college degree.

The comeback kid

Right about that time, Lewis began following a motivational speaker who changed the trajectory of his life. His name is Eric Thomas, and he wrote a book called The Secret to Success: When You Want to Succeed as Bad as You Want to Breathe.

“That was the first book I ever read from front to back, and I was 27 years old,” Lewis says. “Thomas wrote, ‘If you can look up, you can get up,’ and something in me shifted.” Lewis surrounded himself with motivated people. He captured a winning attitude. He became a motivational conference junkie.

“I decided to try to turn myself into a story. I started telling people, ‘I’m going from the 1.3 to the PhD.’”

Lewis applied to University of Phoenix’s MBA program, but there was only one problem: his 2.2 undergraduate GPA. He remembers University of Phoenix admitting him on a probationary basis. “I had four classes to prove I belonged at the MBA level,” he says.

By the time the four courses were complete, Lewis had something he had never had in his life: a 3.0 GPA. His mind captivated, the once unmotivated student now wanted to be a motivational speaker in his community.

Why pursue that Master of Business Administration? We break down the career paths, benefits and more.

Giving credit where credit's due

Lewis dedicates his bachelor’s degree to his late grandma. “She really wanted me to get it. Every time I would come visit her, she would ask, ‘How many credits do you have left?’ and I’m lying to her, not telling her I’m on academic probation,” Lewis says. “Finally, when my diploma came in the mail, I took it straight to her and showed her. Two weeks after that,” Lewis says, pausing, “she passed away.”

“For her to see it and hug me, I think that was God’s timing,” he says.

He dedicates his MBA to his mom, whom Lewis admits probably grew gray hair on his account. “I get a little teary-eyed thinking about her,” Lewis says, now acknowledging that his mom sacrificed her own priorities to help him focus on finishing high school.

Who is the doctorate dedicated to?

“That one is for me,” Lewis says. “I owed that to myself.”

Today, Lewis speaks to students all over Jacksonville — including a recent assembly of 2,000 students at the community college where he once earned eight straight F’s. He talks about taking education seriously, setting goals and choosing friends wisely. He’s still a motivational conference junkie, but these days he goes to network more than for the motivational content.

“This all became bigger than me,” Lewis says. “If you focus on yourself, you don’t mind losing. But when you focus on your community, your goals become bigger, and your focus becomes greater. I’m the comeback kid. I completed the journey.”

“And,” he says, pausing for effect, this time with a smile, “I made my mom proud.”

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