When Robert Shields graduated from high school in 2005, going to college was out of reach financially. The self-described “military brat” (his father is a 20-year Army veteran) was born in Fort Knox, KY, and lived for a time in Queens, NY, before moving to Indianapolis for his junior and senior years at North Central High School. To help his family make ends meet, Shields juggled jobs as a lifeguard and fast-food worker while participating in the JROTC program. Although he boasted the academic credentials to succeed in college, he was forced to delay his pursuit of further education.
Shields saw the world as he worked in Europe and South America in the independent film industry, but he didn’t forget his dream of earning a college degree. He sought a way to position himself for admission and scholarship at a top four-year institution and discovered that community college was the most affordable and practical choice. Shields enrolled in the Ivy Tech Community College American Honors Program, which allows graduates to transfer to a growing network of four-year universities, thereby saving money on their first two years of college.
With its challenging coursework and personal advisors, the Honors Program proved a perfect fit for Shields, and he transitioned smoothly.
“I’m fortunate that I can adapt to situations quickly,” he said. “I developed relationships with my peers and professors, and I’m really good at balancing—doing the things I want to do and the things I have to do. Along with being in student government and Phi Beta Kappa, the workload was tremendous.”
After earning his associate degree in 2014 with honors, Shields applied and was accepted as a transfer student to a number of prestigious colleges, including Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Amherst College, Middlebury College, University of Arizona Honors College, Rutgers Honors College and Marian University. He chose Stanford because it consistently is ranked one of the top five institutions in the world and in the top five in his desired areas of study—astrophysics and philosophy. Also attractive was the $70,000 a year financial aid package and the personal attention he received during the application process.
Shields knows he is fortunate to be at Stanford, where only 20 to 35 transfer student spaces are available each year. He attributes beating the admission odds to a lesson he learned from his father.
“My dad always instilled in me the importance of being a renaissance man,” Shields notes. “I focused on being a well-rounded individual because grades aren’t enough. Everyone who’s applying has good grades. I maintained a 4.0 at Ivy Tech, but I traveled around the world and worked in the film industry. I marketed my life experiences well—having challenges early on but staying true to my dream.”
As a new Stanford Cardinal, he looks forward to living near family in the Bay Area and being able to surf again. When it comes to a career, Shields says he’d be happy as a professor or novelist, but it’s more about the journey than the destination.
I’m more interested in the knowledge acquired and wish I could attend school forever.”
That’s consistent with his advice to other students—especially those who run into obstacles on the way to achieving their goals.
“Have big dreams,” he says, “but take it one step at a time. Balance your real life but don’t give up; don’t become complacent. Keep working.”