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Find your strengths

Above: Illustration by Dan Page

By Stephen Des Georges

In a home split asunder by divorce, faucets run dry and the lights go dark because of unpaid bills. This was Hillary Polk’s reality growing up.

When he was 11 years old, Polk’s family lived in a Phoenix homeless shelter for four months while his parents litigated the divorce. Polk recalls sitting in that shelter, his thoughts obsessively returning to one thing: “I hope this doesn’t interfere with school.”

“Imagine a boy who went to school every day and absolutely loved learning but was worried one day he would have to stop learning,” he says.

Polk left the shelter to live with his mother in Tempe. His drive to learn carried him through high school, ultimately earning him scholarships to Arizona State University’s Barrett, The Honors College for studies in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.

For Polk, succeeding at academics was never an issue. He’d been doing that for as long as he could remember, even as turmoil roiled his family.

What he didn’t have, and what he knew he needed, were skills to succeed in the workforce. Self-awareness. Direction. Career planning. Leadership.

“There were no doctors in my life,” Polk says.“There were no engineers. I didn’t have a lot of examples of successful people to show me how to begin a career.”

Yet today he is unwavering in his desire to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and is excited to apply to medical school after he graduates in 2020, aspirations he attributes in part to his T.W. Lewis Scholarship.

The scholarship was established by Jan and Tom Lewis. Tom is founder, owner and CEO of the T.W. Lewis Company, an Arizona-based luxury homebuilder and diversified real estate investment company.

They created the scholarship in 2001 to provide students from Maricopa County not only financial support, but also personal development through career coaching, self-awareness assessments, leadership training and networking opportunities. In 2014, they decided to direct that scholarship support exclusively to Barrett students.

For Polk, the self-assessment and career counseling have been invaluable. “The coaching helped me realize what I truly value,” he says. He meets every semester with Juan Kingsbury, founder of Career Blindspot, a company that specializes in matching people’s talents to careers. Together, they revisit Polk’s assessment and clarify his goals.

Tom Lewis says Polk’s story is a testament to the vital importance of understanding and developing individual strengths to prepare students for professional careers.

“It’s not about finding ‘passion,’” Lewis says. “My passion was basketball, but I couldn’t dribble with my left hand, so I had to switch gears.” As a young man, he pursued engineering, but later discovered an aptitude for business. “Awake” and “excited,” Lewis followed his strengths to success as a homebuilder, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

This year, the Lewises decided to go beyond their scholarship and expand the opportunities it provides to all students in Barrett.

They gave a gift to establish the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development on ASU’s Tempe campus, a one-stop shop where students can go for assistance with the kind of personal development offered by the scholarship, as well as courses on finding success and happiness. The Lewises also contributed to the construction of the Barrett Honors College Student Success Center, which will provide services like career counseling, alumni networking, national scholarship advisement and other programming.

“There’s a lot of current knowledge about career planning, personal strengths, success and happiness,” Lewis says. “There’s the idea that you follow your passion and everything will be fine. I think you need to find your strengths, and your passion will follow. Every student is unique, and we can help each one realize their strengths and better understand how to find success and happiness.”

As he looks toward graduation, Polk sometimes thinks of his 11-year-old self and the months he spent in a homeless shelter. He regularly goes to the very same shelter to volunteer, reading to children.

“I look back at what I have been given and all that I have achieved,” Polk says, “and quite frankly, it is impressive how much the professional and financial support from one family can make a difference in a student’s life.”

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