Shaun McMichael (3rd Quarter, 2006)

by Josh Barsch on August 20, 2010

3rd Quarter, 2006
Dale E. Fridell Scholarship Winner
Shaun McMichael
Seattle Pacific University

My name is Shaun Anthony McMichael. I’m a junior at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in psychology with a minor in creative writing. It’s an odd mix, some have said, but the two disciplines have proved to be complimentary. My studies in psychology, with a focus on adolescent functioning, social interaction and pathology, have influenced my perception of people and given me insight into the human condition that has impacted the characters I am able to create in my writing.


A Portion of Shaun’s Winning Essay:

I currently focus my studies on psychology, learning as much as I can about the different ways people live and about the various afflictions that can plague the minds of my brothers and sisters in humanity. I hope to further my academic education in order to continue the process of establishing empathy for the wider world in the hopes that one day I might take part in healing some of those suffering within it. I plan to do this by transferring with my AA to Seattle Pacific University and continuing my studies in psychology–pursuing a career as a clinical therapist.

Shaun McMichael

I visited SPU last Friday for a new student advising and counseling session. I had chosen the school because of its reputed top notch psychology department and because if I intended to become a healer of humanity, my desire was to have my knowledge set within the framework of the greatest healer of all, which in my opinion is Christ. My early enthusiasm about the school had since been jaded after I began to realize how much tuition was going to cost me. I entered into the advising session with a troubled, heavy heart.

To my surprise there were only three other students in the psychology advising session. There, we were welcomed to the department by the dean himself who proceeded to advise us personally as to which classes we should take in the coming quarter! The dean warned us of the work load but added enthusiastically that not only did the department require an internship but that one would be provided for us, assuming we desire one. He also said that in the department, undergraduates were known to co-author journals published by professors!

It was good to feel something other than dread towards my chosen institution of higher learning. The idea of an actual job in psychology had always seemed so abstract but at SPU it was discussed as a possibility. With career opportunities waiting at my fingertips and mountains of knowledge to be scaled and mastered, I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement garnished with anxiety. For the first time in my learning process, I’ve caught a glimpse of a chance to exercise all the potential energy within me; the possibility to become a kinetic force, healing others and spreading knowledge wherever I am meant to go.

As the misty cloud of my grandiose dream fades, I realize that right now I’m just a community college student with potential, that there’s a lot left to learn and much still to sacrifice. The path towards my lofty goals is long and fraught with financial need. I’m going to need help. For aid in this area, I look to you.


My name is Shaun Anthony McMichael. I suppose the desire that most marks my current existence would be the desire to learn about the human experience in order to help people in the ways that I have been helped. The following will be a brief discussion of the life experiences and education that planted the seeds of this desire into my heart.

My childhood is remembered through looking at still photos captured through memory’s clouded lens; a small suburban desert town, a devoted, single mother gone for long periods of time, a biological father geographically distant, separated by divorce, and a treasury of books and toys to water my hungry mind. Figures and themes emerge from these sordid details, aided along by adult clarification and explanation. My birth had pushed my mother into two things: a full time career in law enforcement and a renewal in her relationship with Christ.

While I admire her for the former, the latter has been most influential. She taught me how to read at an early age, and I began devouring children’s books and Bible stories. Soon I was using my toys to create stories of my own, an ability that would yield most complex crops in years to come. My enjoyment of exploring books and the abilities of my own mind combined with my status as an only child created a disconnection with peers and a lack of social life outside the home. If I had been told to go out and play with the neighborhood children I would have asked why. In my early years I learned what I needed to about the world through books, school and other media outlets.

God was also a source of knowledge early on and while I never delved into sports I did get involved with Awana, a Christian version of Boy Scouts where one learned to tie together Biblical themes instead of knots in ropes. While any friendships I made through the organization were brief, the intensive memorization required gave me a solid foundation in God’s word, one that refined my sense of right and wrong and wrought in me a conscience that proved unbendable despite the struggles that were to come. In my childhood I saw God as the highest authority but one of love and peace.

Things would happen that would make me doubt my early opinions of the Father. In my later childhood another authority came into my life; a step father. He was a man of muscles, cars, profanity and grease, and while my real father was physically unavailable, my step father was just as distant emotionally. He and my mother decided to move to Washington State, uprooting me from the few connections I had made in the desert and transplanting me to rich, vibrant soil that would provide me with mind expanding stimuli. This move would encourage the continuation of two trends; isolation and creativity. It was in Washington that I started writing some of my stories down. They became more than mere distractions; they became venues through which I formed an identity.

Trouble came from the institutions that I had so embraced as a child. I was bound by a small, awkward frame and glasses and cursed with a large vocabulary. My isolation gave me insight into the workings of the world but a complete ignorance when it came to fashion and certain social graces needed to navigate the jungles of junior high. I was absent on the day everybody was informed that what you wore mattered. Junior high kids at school and church, as well as my step father, had a field day with my desires to “pursue theatrical endeavors”.

Things became difficult at home, as well, as my mother and I found out my step father wasn’t just a man of cars and grease but of pornography and other women. From that point on my home life would join my social life in instability. The daily difficulty of entering school wondering where the attacks would come from and entering home wondering whether my parents were together or not, left me frustrated with life and angry at authority.

My parents’ inability to maintain a stable home coupled with my teachers’ inability to protect me created in me distrust for authority that I began acting on with exponential fierceness. I became attracted to punk rock and playing loud, angry music as outlets for my rage. I also began rebelling against my teachers, not doing assignments and becoming overly boisterous in class. Ironically it was this rebellion that granted me social acceptance, however the negative impact it had on my grades alerted those around me that something was wrong.

At my mother’s behest I enrolled in Life Skills, a Christian based group therapy in which I learned about communication, emotions and how to work through them and express them in healthier, more assertive ways. This program not only taught me about myself and others but sparked in me an interest for psychology and made me want to share what I had learned with those around me who were also struggling in adolescence. It was an interest that would be nurtured in my later high school years and one that would flourish as I went off to college.

As my interest in learning was revived, my grades went up, as did the quality of my classes. I took solace in education once again, seeing it as earthly salvation as opposed to an unfair authority. Despite my blemished record, I was given a chance by a liberal teacher to enter into an advanced history class. With forty pages or more of reading a week and several essays a month, it was one of the hardest and most important classes I’d ever taken. It not only showed me what would be expected of me in a college classroom, it also showed me that there was an authority who did care about what I had to say and that rewarded me based on my efforts.

Senior year, I continued to succeed in advanced classes in English and American Government. I graduated with the respect of my educators and the approval of my peers, who elected me to speak at our graduation ceremony. Though I had worked through the products of my anger, becoming more knowledgeable about myself and using that knowledge to improve my relationships with those around me, I held onto certain elements of my rebelliousness in my later teens. I still approached everything with a raised eyebrow of suspicion and a mouth full of questions. I still jammed to punk rock, and I maintained my early refusal to go with the grain. I wanted to learn more about people but not just in a nearby classroom; I wanted experiences. After I spoke at graduation, I more or less fled to Los Angeles with my two best friends planning to go to school full time and work a little on the side.

I ended up doing the opposite, working nearly forty hours a week and going to school whenever I could. I did accomplish my goal, however. In the city I witnessed and endured great poverty. The dollar gained meaning to me then. It was sitting on my bed, sweating from the heat, kept awake by the anxiety on how I was going to pay the next months rent that I learned the trouble life can become without money. As with the other two stages of my life I had few social connections. In my formative years it was lack of desire, in my early teens it was inability because of social awkwardness, but in California it was because I lacked money and time.

In the moments of reflection my isolated lifestyle afforded me I experienced a creative explosion the like that only the phenomenon of being poor and away from your home can bring about. I wrote a myriad of songs, some loud and angry, others quieter and more introspective. I crafted a handful of short stories and wrote a novel, whose revising is still in the process. Even more important than my artistic explosion and minor academic success, California allowed me to catch a small glimpse into what it was like being poor; something I had never been or been aware of. Through this glimpse I was provided an understanding for another way of life and sympathy for the people who must walk that path. It’s an understanding that was burned into my being along with the Bible verses I memorized as a child. It’s this process, the process of developing empathy for another person’s existence, that I think is the most redeemable out of all life’s experiences and one I hope to experience again and again.

The time I did spend at school wasn’t idly spent. Everyday was a spiritual challenge for me as I took classes that made me question certain things in my faith that had previously been unchallenged. In English Literature we read stories about women branching outside the traditional roles encouraged by my religion and through the narratives I saw the negative, limiting nature of gender role assignment. In Physical Anthropology, we discussed Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Through the reading I observed the rational explanation for variance upon the planet. Upon being confronted with new ideas I felt immediate frustration and was tempted to close my mind. I concluded, however, that the feelings of frustration I was experiencing were the early signs of a breakthrough, mere growing pains in the process of understanding the world and ironing out my reaction to it, forming a personal belief structure. Above any fact about biology, any concept of psychology, I learned to approach an idea with an open mind.

Both processes, the process of establishing empathy and the process of confronting a new idea, were by and large the most invigorating experiences of my life. In their intricacies I found purpose and an added desire to continue my pursuits in higher education, not just to achieve economic viability but to enhance personal intellectual vitality.

I moved back to Washington to focus on my studies and currently live at home with my mother, my first teacher, who never ceases to provide me with new lessons and advice. Though I focus my studies on psychology, I continue to enjoy classes in the humanities such as comparative religion and history. With each course I take I prepare to establish empathy for a new group, a new race. I brace myself for the onslaught of new trains of thought and ideas that may or may not clash with my religion. There are some in my religion who consider it harmful to delve into “secular” thought for they feel the ideas found elsewhere to be antagonizing. I, however, find that most ideas serve as compliments to Christianity which is an adaptable religion that is so established in my heart, I do not need to be defensive of the world but instead am called to be open to it so that I might impact it in a positive way.

I remember back to my training in Life Skills and how that program impacted my way of thinking. Now as I learn more about the complexities of cognitive processes, emotions and pathologies, my desire to relay that information onto others grows. I will never cease to learn, but my plan is to eventually apply what I learn by counseling others in a clinical setting, completing the cycle of my life, giving back what I have received

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