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Michael Santos

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Course: Self-Directed, Self-Help with Journaling 101

Title:

  • Kevin on Incremental Steps Toward Success

Blurb:

  • Kevin moved to the United States at the age of 14, with no money and no command of the English language. Kevin overcame challenges by exercising determination and an iron-clad work ethic to achieve success.  

Objective:

  • In Kevin’s story, participants in jail and prison will learn the importance of developing communication skills and embracing personal humility to pursue entry-level opportunities as a bridge to success.

Lesson Requirements:

  • Watch the video that accompanies the lesson
  • Write a definition of each word highlighted in bold and written in italics
  • Use ten of the vocabulary words in a sentence
  • Respond to a minimum of three open-ended questions by following instructions at the end of the lesson.

Lesson Outcome:

  • Participants will develop vocabulary by at least ten words.
  • Participants will improve writing skills and their ability to contemplate how their responses to open-ended questions relate to their prospects for success upon release.
  • Participants will add to their journal, demonstrating a self-directed, self-improvement pathway to prepare for success upon release.

Our entire team at Prison Professors expresses gratitude to Kevin Le for sharing his experiences with us. Kevin has demonstrated true grit in conquering tremendous obstacles and serving as a role model for facing up to the life and career challenges most people face upon leaving prison. 

Kevin’s Back Story:

Kevin experienced an oppressive beginning to his life far beyond what most people would encounter. Kevin was born and raised in Vietnam, a country destroyed and impoverished by war. His family sacrificed to send Kevin and his sister out of the country to pursue a better life. Kevin spent almost one year at a refugee camp in Thailand before his cousin coordinated sponsorship that would allow him to immigrate to the United States and begin living in Colorado.

Kevin arrived in the country at the age of 15. He didn’t have any financial resources, and he didn’t speak English; he didn’t even know the alphabet. On the other, even at the outset, Kevin had grit in abundance. He began looking for jobs and opportunities. He asked people in his church if they had odd jobs he could complete. His dentist stepped up to the task, offering him opportunities to earn an income by doing odd jobs. If Kevin perceived someone might open opportunities for gainful employment, he would ask. Kevin did not consider any job too menial or beneath him. Kevin mowed lawns and cleaned peoples’ homes for the minimum wage to better his life.

Kevin’s lack of English-speaking skills hampered his early education. He recalled taking much longer to read. For example, a native English speaker might read a passage in 30 minutes. Since Kevin didn’t speak English well, he needed to translate words from English to Vietnamese to figure out what the author wanted to convey. That effort took time, requiring several days for him to understand what a native English speaker would get in 30 minutes. Yet he never gave up

Kevin persevered by taking English-as-a-Second-Language courses during his summers. Those extra efforts helped him to catch up with his peers. Kevin’s hard work paid off, as evidenced by the fact that he graduated high school with a 3.8-grade point average. Even as a teenager, just a few years into life in America, Kevin appreciated how he could achieve positive results by putting in additional effort.    

Unlike Kevin, I did not face extreme barriers in my youth. I made bad decisions as a result of early influences. Movies such as Scarface mesmerized me. The friends I chose put me on a bad path. Such influences deluded me into believing that illegal shortcuts might be a good choice.

In contrast, Kevin’s choices showed us that he grew up as a man with good character traits. He would take any job he could find to make a few extra dollars. He learned that hard work would pay off over time as he made his life better with each passing step. We can see the many ways that Kevin’s choices laid a foundation for success. He advanced from one position to the next, always in pursuit of new opportunities that would influence his future.      

Takeaway:

I vividly recall that while I served my sentence in prison, I looked for stories of hope and inspiration. Kevin’s story would have strengthened my resolve. When I learned about people like him, I wanted to model my decisions after theirs, hoping they would influence my prospects for a better future. I hoped to salvage my future and re-enter society with the talents and skills necessary to live with dignity and become a success. Success stories like Kevin’s served as a source of powerful motivation, influencing my adjustment through tough times.

  • What thoughts and fears do you assume Kevin must have had when he left his country for America?
  • In what ways do you think he overcame his fears?
  • What thoughts and fears influence your life?
  • How can you position yourself to overcome those thoughts and fears?
  • In what ways did the challenges Kevin face resemble the challenges that you face?
  • In what ways would the strategies Kevin used to overcome help you overcome?

Kevin’s Preparations:

Kevin understood the value of education and pursued a college degree. Despite ongoing hurdles caused by his lack of command of the English language, he made a commitment. Kevin excelled at math and chose to pursue an engineering degree. The University of Colorado at Boulder, his first choice, did not accept him at first. Rather than giving up, he enrolled at a community college to hone his talents and skills. He then transferred to a university in Colorado Springs with aspirations of still making it to Boulder.

Kevin finally made it into Boulder University. Rather than earning an engineering degree in four years, he had to devote two additional years. Kevin refused to give up.

While working to accumulate credits toward his degree, Kevin also worked to earn a living. Besides working as a secretary in an office, he also worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Kevin began as a cook and eventually advanced to the assistant manager position. The more skills Kevin developed, the better jobs he garnered. He earned a high level of responsibility and a concomitant increase in salary due to his hard work.      

After earning his degree in engineering, Kevin tried to find work in his profession. Without many jobs in his home state of Colorado, he started looking elsewhere. From a cousin, he learned about the booming economy in California. Kevin moved to California and accepted a position with a cellular company that he believed could foster his personal and professional growth.

Kevin came into work early every day and put in additional unpaid hours on weekends to learn the business’s engineering side. After two years, the company rewarded Kevin’s efforts by promoting him to an engineering position. Kevin stayed with that company for 11 years, eventually earning the eminent title of Project Manager.

Kevin further learned the importance of preparing stability for his family and contributing to his community. Kevin saved money, forgoing such luxuries as eating out and personal entertainment. He would do everything possible to help others. Besides learning about opportunities to invest in the stock market, he learned about opportunities to invest in real estate. He purchased houses that he could rent to fellow members of the Vietnamese community who shared common bonds through shared struggle. 

Takeaway:

While in prison, it may not be easy for you to spot opportunities for personal growth. Yet in listening to stories like Kevin’s, we see the importance of being self-directed. Opportunities present themselves all the time.

While working through 26 years, I used my time to search for educators, businesspeople, and professionals from who I could learn. From those people, I learned a great deal. When I met people in prison that had skills I could learn, I bartered with them. I offered strategies they could use to navigate the prison system, and I would grow from their mentorship. These relationships did not involve a direct quid pro quo, but rather a symbiotic relationship in which we both benefitted from each other’s knowledge.

I sought out people much like Kevin, who had achieved traditional success in society. Criminal charges may have undermined that success, but the path they took provided invaluable insight. I capitalized on the resources available to build a foundation that could serve me well upon my return to society.

Anyone in prison can work to build mentor relationships. They can learn from leaders like Kevin through our course, or they may find people around them that have lessons to share.

  • What are you doing now to prepare for new opportunities?
  • What opportunities exist around you?
  • Identify a fellow person in prison that can help you develop new skills.
  • What can you read to learn skills that will help you after you’re released?
  • In what ways are you prepared to effect change toward a better life?

Evolution to Business and Investment Success:

Kevin appreciated the value of investing to help supplement his income. He squirreled away funds during his early work years at the cellular company and began buying equity stakes in technology companies. With guidance from the wisdom of his wife, he came to learn what has become an investor maxim:

  • “Bulls make money and bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered.”

This expression alludes to the fact that people who buy shares (bulls) can earn profits. People who short stocks (bears) can make money. Greedy people (pigs) lose money. Kevin’s wife convinced him to sell stocks if his investments earned a sizeable profit in a short time.

Kevin also appreciated the value of owning his own business. He saw several college friends go into business for themselves and attain success. Kevin did likewise, leveraging his past contacts and relationships to build his business from scratch. He kept his fees low to entice customers to use his services and he kept costs low by working from home and traveling by car (approximately 40,000 miles per year).

Kevin also humbly took on any work that customers felt comfortable offering. Kevin provided services ranging from those involving his core talents of engineering to landscaping and cleaning up graffiti. Even as the boss, Kevin remained prepared to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.

Finally, Kevin shared the critical importance of investing in real estate. Several of Kevin’s mentors suggested investing in Corona, California. Kevin personally explored the opportunity and after thoroughly assessing the situation, Kevin invested and became quite successful. He built a portfolio that grew to 15 rental houses. He also learned essential lessons on renting to customers who would take good care of the homes they lived in and who would pay rent regardless of circumstance. Kevin additionally engendered loyalty from tenants by charging prices markedly below market.      

The pertinent details of Kevin’s life story emphasize the importance of patience. Anyone can achieve anything by implementinga strategy involving persistence and time. Kevin’s life stands out in stark contrast to mine, in which I exercised little patience in my youth. If I had exercised the same level of determination and foresight as Kevin, I would never have ended up in prison. Like anyone else, rather than complaining about past bad decisions, I should work toward making better decisions.

The question remains for each of us: “what can we do to shape our future?”

To the extent that we ask good questions, and learn from great role models, we can work to resurrect our life. Effectively, we can turn obstacles into opportunities, turning lemons into lemonade.     

Much like Kevin, anyone can work to improve critical thinking skills. We all can work to improve our skills to communicate, both orally and in writing. These basic skills translate well into any job or venture a person may pursue post-incarceration. They will enable a person to highlight talents and explain why a person would be an asset to any group or organization. 

Consider for a moment how lessons from Kevin’s achievements might help you advance. Kevin kept a slow and steady pace, building incrementally upon each successful step. Our lives, in turn, led to the same results as the fable.

By virtue of patience, Kevin succeeded. We all can learn from the lessons he offered in the interview segment that accompanies his lesson plan. Exercise patience and humility. Develop strong critical thinking and communication skills.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  • Write at least three paragraphs, with a minimum of three sentences each, for each of the following questions.
  1. How did Kevin’s values aid in the development of his success?
  2. What life struggles have you faced, and how do they compare to Kevin’s?
  3. What past goals have you set in your life, and how do they compare to your plans today?
  4. In what ways did Kevin’s deliberate and systematic pursuit of goals during his young life and early career help foster his eventual success?
  5. Kevin refused to let his past serve as an obstacle for his future. What can you do to help prevent your time in prison from being an obstacle in your future?
  6. Kevin exercised self-sacrifice and delayed gratification. In what ways might you do likewise in creating a new future for yourself after prison?
  7. What elements of Kevin’s past helped him succeed in running his own business?
  8. How can we create an environment to encourage and aid in our success?
  9. Kevin recognized his strength in math and how he could best utilize that talent. What strengths do you have, and how can you best use them going forward?
  10. In what ways would developing stronger communication skills aid in your post-incarceration development?

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