My Path from Special Education to Assistant Professor

Published: 02 August 2019

Update: I’ve had a number of people ask about my support structure along the way. I added a new section called “My Support Structure”, that details how my family has helped me throughout my journey.

I am wrapping up the preparation of my tenure application which is due August 16th. This marks a major milestone in my life, and as a result, has caused me to reflect a bit on my path to where I am today. In doing so I have decided to share my very non-traditional path with everyone. I’ve decided to do this, because I’ve had to overcome a bit of struggle to get here, and I generally feel less alone when I know of others who deal with similar problems, and even more so when those people are generally successful in their life. In this post, I would like to share my story and problems I deal with in the hope that someone out there might feel less alone.

This post is extremely hard for me to write. The things I am going to reveal are things I have kept a secret for a very long time. I think of this post as a bit of therapy for myself as much as it is – hopefully – useful to others.

I am an assistant professor in computer science at Augusta University, I have Attention-Deficit/Hyper-activity Disorder (ADHD), suffer from anxiety, mild depression, and a major case of imposter syndrome. Anxiety and depression can be linked to ADHD, but my imposter syndrome comes from my history in academics. I think of ADHD as an anxiety disorder, and it often has some negative stigmas associated with it.

Note: Everything I discuss here is from personal experience, and I am not a mental-health expert. Some stuff might be triggering to others, but I try not to do that. Finally, if anyone is struggling and needs someone to talk to, then please do not hesitate to reach out to me, even if we do not know each other. I am always willing to chat.

ADHD affects me in several ways:

  • It causes bursts of anxiety whenever I have to do something I might not really feel like doing. Consider something mundane like washing the dishes – I hate washing the dishes – whenever I think, I need to get in there and rock these dishes out, a burst of anxiety rushes through my chest all the way up to my head. It’s not like a “oh bummer, I don’t feel like doing it” kind of burst, it’s a “your world is going to end if you move” kind of burst. Take your worst fear and that’s it, but all the time.

  • It makes me very impulsive. I’ll get an idea, and then rush to do it without thinking about the consequences. This caused problems when I was a kid, but I’ve learned to stop and think. I still have problems though, I really need to think before spending money, or eating bad food, or starting new projects.

  • It can cause what I call trapped-in-my-head episodes. This is where I will start to think about something, can be just about anything, and I will space out thinking for minutes or hours. This has seriously derailed things I am working on. I hate when this happens, but I try and catch it and stop myself; however, when I do that, I can get bad anxiety. This also makes it hard staying focused during conversations.

  • It causes me to be easily distracted. This is a daily struggle. Distracting sounds can cause me to loose my focus and even irritate me. Some sounds are painful which can cause me to have to close my eyes until its over; I’m not referring to loud noises that cause everyone do this, but noises most people can ignore. Take an example, one day I was lecturing to my Theory of Computation students, and someone in the hallway was whistling, this fully distracted me to the point that I couldn’t think about anything, but that sound, and I had to pause for a minute before continuing. Some students noticed, and joked about it a bit, but I had to explain that my mind fully focuses on distractions. That distraction caused my mind to focus on just that, and so, lecturing was nearly impossible without force. I managed, but it can be a struggle. One thing I really hate about this effect of ADHD is I can’t hear people in a noisy environment. Take going out to lunch or dinner in a crowded restaurant. I almost always cannot hear the people at my table, because my mind is going a mile a minute due to all of the distractions. This is why I am usually super quiet at the after conference dinners when attending research conferences, because I generally cannot hear anyone. While working I almost always listen to music which helps drown out the distracting noises, but when I need to think about something deep and difficult, then I need silence.

That being said, people with ADHD have a super power! We can get into flow very easily when we are doing something we like. For me, that’s mathematics. I can enter flow so hard that I form tunnel vision where everything in my peripheral vision goes blurry. This is amazing for research! I can really focus on what’s in my head and ignore everything else, but this creates a problem with time, and keeping it. I have to set alarms that go off – scaring the crap out of me – to tell me to go somewhere or do something else.

So that’s how ADHD affects me, and still does, and will continue to for the rest of my life.

However, the story is just getting started. In the rest of this post I would like to share my path to where I am today as a professor in computer science.

I think it’s best if I start from the beginning.

Grade School through High School

I was a handful to say the least as a child. My brothers and I always joke about how our parents survived it. I did not like to be told what to do. If I enjoyed something, then I fully immersed myself in it, but if it was something I was supposed to do, but didn’t enjoy doing it, then good luck! I wasn’t having it. In second grade my parents and teachers began to notice that I was not willing to pay attention, or listen, or do anything other than what I wanted to do. My parents decided to have me checked out by a doctor and I was diagnosed with ADHD, but on top of that they decided that I needed to be put into the special education program, because they also diagnosed me with a learning disability.

Special education in the eighties and early nineties was a program that consisted of students being placed into special classes that were different from what my fellow students called “the normal classes”. Everyone with a learning disability was put into the same class, and so, there was a large range of abilities between the students. I remained in special education until I graduated from high school. I didn’t really understand the difference between my classes and the normal classes until I was in middle school.

Being isolated from the general student population as a teen sucks. I was angry, felt alone, and generally acted out because of it. I hung out with the wrong crowd, and it wasn’t a period of my life I am particularly proud of. However, it was in middle school that I had an epiphany.

Most people do not know this, but I have always wanted to be a scientist. In fact, my Dad and I made my first science project in first grade. We made a magnet out of a battery, wire, and a nail. Then we built a tow truck out of it. I still have it, and I love it!

I kept my aspirations secret, because it was not cool, and I knew it was an impossible dream. Funny story, I used to steal books about robots from the local library, because I didn’t know how to check them out, and I knew no adult would have believed I wanted to read them.

In eighth grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Flannigan, at Edison Junior High School. We had to learn the U.S. constitution in order to graduate and enter high school. I worked hard, and tried my best, when I took the exam with her, she handed it back, and said something along the lines of, see how well you did? You can do great things if you try! I recall going back to my locker and deeply looking at myself and where I was headed. I asked myself, is this you? Is this it? Can I be something more? From that point on I began searching.

I was searching for who I wanted to be. I also started caring, and began questioning everything I did and was asked to do. Special education beginning in middle school doesn’t change from that point until graduation of high school. In fact, I graduated from high school with a middle school education. High school was a breeze because of this, and often, I didn’t have to do anything and I got through. I started to get bored, and a person with ADHD gets really bored, but I was now on my search, and it paid off, only thanks to some luck.

During my sophomore year, or maybe junior year, my high school setup a partnership with Illinois Central College where a professor came to our high school and taught a course on CISCO Networking. I wanted to take it, but I had to fight to do it. Since it was a normal class the school felt uneasy about me taking it, but I really wanted to. They made me sit in a room and do a bunch of IQ tests, and then they finally allowed me to enroll into the course. That class changed my life, because it introduced me to the world of computing.

I realized that in order to be good at computing I had to be good at other subjects like math, reading, and writing; that is, everything I have been ignoring most of my life. At that point on I started trying very hard on my academics. I begin reading books on my own, and learning new mathematics and computer programming. I really wanted to get out of the special education program, but again, they made that really hard. I fought for the right to take the normal algebra class, and they again, allowed me to based on my performance in the networking course. However, when I joined the course for the first time I had a panic attack, and retreated back to my usual courses. I just didn’t feel ready, but I didn’t give up.

After graduating from high school I decided to enroll at Illinois Central College (ICC) studying information technology (IT), because I wanted to become a system administrator. I graduated from high school with an eighth-grade education, and so I tested into the lowest of the low courses; for example, I tested into remedial mathematics which taught me how to add, subtract, and count money. At ICC I basically redid high school, but I was successful. I also got pretty bored with IT, but as a requirement I had to take a computer science course. I enrolled in Introduction to Computer Science. It was there I fell in love with algorithms and computer programming. I switched to computer science, but the school started canceling all of the computer science courses due to low enrollment.

The University Years

The thought of going to a university really never crossed my mind. I figured I would just finish ICC and get a job, but they stopped offering upper-division CS courses so something had to give. I was talking to a family member about it, and they just came out and said, why don’t you transfer to a university? They knew I was doing really well, and figured I can get in if I applied. I was super nervous, because my high school, and lower, education was all in special education, but I found out that they only look at your transcripts from your prior college if you went to one after high school; this gave me strength.

I had no idea how to apply to a college. No one in my family went to college, and so I didn’t have anyone to learn from. So I decided to just start asking friends and colleagues at the local supermarket I worked at. One colleague said she went to Millikin University. She said, the classes were small – no bigger than 20 – and the professors really cared, because it is a liberal-arts teaching university. This intrigued me, because the thought of being in a huge lecture hall horrified me. I applied to their CS program and got in!

Going to Millikin changed my life. I realized that what I loved about CS was the mathematics and logic that founded it. I became a double major in mathematics, and I excelled far past every expectation I had. In fact, I won the Computer Science Student of the Year award three out of the four years I was there. The professors there helped me far beyond what they know. Without them in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

During my junior year I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life, and I kept thinking about how amazing my professor’s lives seemed. They got to do mathematics all day, help students learn, and do research. I did several undergraduate research projects while I was at Millikin, and I got the bug. I presented at a few conferences, and loved it! So I realized that I wanted to be a professor and be able to do research and teach students. Most of all, I wanted to share my love with computer science and mathematics with others, and there is no better way than as a professor.

Several of the professors in the department at Millikin were graduates from the University of Iowa (UIowa), and it so happened that one of them was going to visit UIowa to give a talk while I was looking into graduate schools. So I tagged along, and I loved it. I got to meet with several graduate students, and their love of the school really convinced me that I wanted to be there. Also, it isn’t that far from home, but it will be the furthest away from home I had lived. I did make a mistake, this was the only place I applied. But, luckily, I got in. However, I applied too late to get into the Ph.D. program, and was accepted into the masters program, but I got in, and so my plan was to impress my professors so much, that I could find someone to do research with, and then transfer over to the Ph.D. program. It was a risk, but it paid off.

At UIowa I didn’t know which research area I wanted to focus in, but I knew it had to be theory based. My first semester I took Aaron Stump’s Foundations of Programming Languages course. It was like nothing I had ever seen, it contained programming, but from a mathematical perspective, and it contained all the math and logic I love! I was also doing really well in the class. My performance in the course peaked Aaron’s interest, and after he offered me a research assistantship. This assistantship was another significant moment in my life, because not only did Aaron become my Ph.D. advisor, but he become a mentor and friend. We still stay in touch, and I still seek his guidance. I also feel like Aaron took a risk with me, but he may not know that. My passion for the foundations of programming languages helped me push past my personal struggles, and helped me excel, because I was using my ADHD as a strength. Doing what I love is easy, and engrossing.

I managed to do pretty well as a graduate student, and then secured a professorship at Augusta University where I have been for five years now. I’m very thankful I got a position at a place I love. So that’s my path.

I think the biggest take away from this story is I kept pushing and didn’t give up on becoming an academic. I had struggles and still do, but perseverance helps a lot.

My Support Structure

Throughout this post I have mentioned several teachers, professors, and mentors who have helped shape my thinking in such a way that has impacted my lives trajectory, but none of them compare to the support I’ve gotten from my family. I don’t see my parents as making the wrong decision to have me put into special education, they were doing as they were advised, and trying to do what they thought was best for their son. I would’ve done the same thing.

I have one trait that has helped a lot with my success. It’s my perseverance, dedication, and work ethic. I get these traits from my parents. My father, Harley Eades Jr, was a mechanic for thirty years or more, and hated it, but decided to quite his job, and open his own powder-coating shop called Like New Parts knowing how much of a risk it was, but has managed to create an outstanding business that is highly respected in his community. My whole life he has worked tirelessly for his family to have what he didn’t have growing up. My mother, Judy Eades, has worked in the fast-food industry for over thirty years, she loves her job, and is one of the most hardworking and dedicated people I have met. She began as a third shift biscuit maker and worked her way up to a general manager who has won a ton of awards! They taught me to work hard to get what I want, and that’s what I did.

My parents also supported me through everything. One thing I didn’t mention above about my search for who I wanted to be is that I tried everything! I tried to be a musician, a cowboy, a DJ, a professional skate boarder and roller bladder, a goth (some things never go away), and finally an academic. In middle school I was full punk/goth, and they got me leather jackets, and let me put on makeup, and anything I wanted to do. They wanted us to be happy, and as long as we were not committing any crimes, then they let us do it. They let me be myself, and it has led me to continue to be myself, and I am super grateful for that.

I honestly would not be who I am without my parents. I love them to death, and their support has helped me beyond what I can describe in a blog post.

My brothers and sisters have also greatly supported me. On top of just being there when I needed them they would let me stay at their places when I was at Millikin, and would let me vent when things weren’t going so well, and let me borrow money when I was a poor student. I’m lucky, because my family is super close, and we all care for each other, and all do our best to help each other out. This is a privilege that not everyone has, and having this support structure has had an incredibly positive impact on my life.

Imposter Syndrome

Given my early educational upbringing I have a very bad case of imposter syndrome. In fact, this post is a bit of therapy for me in this department. I can’t be exposed if everyone already knows.

I think my imposter syndrome comes out the most at conferences. I consider other researchers to be at a higher level than I am or will be, and get super nervous talking with them. It’s all irrational, but I struggle with it a lot.

The QA section at the end of talks is my worst nightmare, because of imposter syndrome, but also ADHD. When I get nervous I can forget stuff pretty quickly, I have said the wrong thing by accident before, or I just lock up and don’t know what do say, or I say things in the wrong order. The fear that I don’t belong in academia or the research community can be so crippling, but I am working on it.

I also struggle socializing at conferences because of this. I have thoughts that I don’t belong, I don’t know enough to have meaningful conversations, and everyone is going to realize I am a crackpot. In the end I shouldn’t care what people think, but a lot rides on peoples perceptions of you in being successful in the research community.

The only way I can get past these problems is by practicing. So going forward I am going to be intentionally socializing more at conferences, and giving as many talks as possible. The more the better, that way I can get past the nerves and think. It’s a work in progress.

My closing thought, if you are struggling, hang in there, and keep pursuing what interests you to the best of your ability.

You matter and are welcome here.