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Called Into Education

Dr. Shawn Foster has worked for years in education administration, but it was his third-grade bus driver who first showed him how good employees in the school system can truly impact a child's life.

"I was raised in the projects by a single parent," Foster said. "... My grandmother had six girls, so I often say that I was raised in a single-mom home with six mothers."

Circumstances forced his family to work long hours, and his mother didn't have the luxury of hiring a sitter or driving her son to school.

"I caught the city bus to my school bus stop," Foster said. "My mother would give me 35 cents every day. I was in the third grade. She would wrap the key around my neck on a little shoe string and tuck it in because I had to catch the school bus back to my city bus stop, and the city bus back home after school by myself."

The buses weren't always on time, and the commute was daunting at first for a child in the third grade. But looking back, Foster can't recall "one time" the school bus driver didn't wait with him for the city bus to arrive at the stop.

He said he wished he could go back in time and tell his bus driver "thank you," because, as a child, sometimes you don't always realize all that people do to keep you safe.

"... My mom was probably more afraid than anything," Foster said. "But after a while, it gave me a sense of responsibility, and also gave me a sense of how important it was to make the right decision and follow what your mother is telling you to do in that circumstance ... I’m very familiar with those situations. Those are the cards that life dealt you, so you play the best hand you’ve got."

Foster was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. Aside from the long ride to school, his family sometimes faced other challenges trying to make ends meet.

"There were tough times when that envelope was sitting on the table with the windows on it, saying 'pay,'" Foster said. "And sometimes it didn't always fit what was coming in."

Despite the tough times, Foster has many happy childhood memories. Even as a young child, he was the "man of the house." He remembers walking through the house at 4 years old, because his family had a superstition that it was good luck for a male to be the first to go through the house on New Year's Day. 

Foster also enjoyed a strong support system from a tight-knit family, and he believes the tough times only brought them closer together.

Although he has made education his lifelong career, Foster was originally a biology major at Livingstone College in North Carolina, later switching to social work. It was there that he also met his wife, Tanya, of 14 years. 

"I didn’t choose education," Foster said. "Education chose me. God chose differently. My grandmother would always tell me, if you want to make God laugh, you tell him your plan."

Foster started work at an alternative school in Spartanburg. He went on to become a guidance counselor, vice principal, and worked his way up to his current position as the Chief Officer for Operations and Student Services of the Aiken County Public School System.

Although Foster didn't plan on working in education, he knew the value of good employees in the school system, from his third grade bus driver to his seventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Hawkins, who always cheered him on.

He recalls the teachers that weren't always supportive, too.

"I’ve had some folks who told me what I wasn’t going to be," Foster said. "You have those individuals, but they also become part of your fabric, too. It just becomes a matter of how you weave them into your quilt. They can become a weight that holds you down, or they can become wings that help you fly."

As an education administrator, Foster has focused greatly on facilitating the flow of students into the workforce.

"Any school system or leader of a school system is doing a disservice if we do a fantastic job educating the students, but when they leave, there are no jobs for them to go into," Foster said. "... I have two kids in this school district so I want to know that, if my child so chooses to go to college, then great. But if he or she wants to go directly into the workforce, that there’s a job because they have the skills that someone is willing to pay them for."

"... I think that is a question we have to continually remind ourselves," he continued. "All means all. It shouldn’t matter where you live, who your mom and dad are. All means all of Aiken County."

While essentially overseeing the operation of a county's public school system may seem like a tough task, Foster recently recovered from the most challenging experience in his life outside the classroom: stage 4 cancer.

"Never been sick a day in my life," Foster said. "(I) found out by accident."

Foster, at the insistence of his wife, Tanya, went for a checkup because he'd been snoring. He said he wasn't planning on actually going, but Tanya told him she would be calling and checking to make sure he did.

"I don't need a doctor's note for work," Foster said. "Ironically, I need one for my wife."

Foster went in last June expecting a short visit. He had regular checkups twice a year every year; nothing unusual ever showed up in his blood work.

"Two minutes later he (the doctor) came back and said, 'I think you have cancer,'" Foster said. "I thought we were joking."

Foster was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer. There was a tumor behind his nose, which required chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

"At that point, we prepared for what I considered to be the most difficult, but the most rewarding, time of my life," Foster said. "There were some tools that I did not have prior to having cancer ... The one thing that I gained was truly how to have faith, and truly release things and turn things over to God."

On Sept. 10 of last year his struggles were at their greatest. 

"I was at that point where I told my wife, 'I don’t think I’m going to beat this, and I’m OK with that, and I need you to be OK with that, too,'" Foster said.

However, when Foster woke up the next day, he felt a sudden need to be at work.

"I lost 60 pounds, so I had to find some clothes to put on," Foster said. "I got there, and something said to me, 'Time doesn’t belong to you.' When you decide to put a period on your life, sometimes God just means for that to be a comma."

On Dec. 6 last year, Foster learned his cancer was in remission. Although the experience was trying for him, it actually cured some of his other health problems. Prior to receiving his treatments, Foster had Type 2 diabetes — an illness he no longer suffers from.


Read the full Aiken Standard article HERE

Kristina Rackley/Aiken Standard