School flop’ mapped path to success
After flunking his high school diploma, Shane McIlwain feared for what his future held. His “appalling” grades left him feeling powerless with no obvious professional direction to follow.
Almost 20 years on, the Bermudian is loving his career as a land surveyor. He is also the proud father of 18-month-old Hazel, and happily married to three-times US Olympian Hazel Clark.
Mr McIlwain, 38, wanted to tell his story so he could inspire others who might be struggling academically and finding it difficult to chart a way forward professionally.
Raised in Southampton, his early years at Port Royal Primary School were a success but when he hit high school, things started to go downhill.
“For some reason, I went wrong. It was like I mentally checked out,” he said.
“I was never a rambunctious individual but my mind wasn’t into it. I got held back and had to repeat a grade.
“No matter what my parents did it didn’t work — praise didn’t work, punishment didn’t work. They had sleepless nights. By the time I got to the finish line, I did enough just to get by.”
When he graduated from the Berkeley Institute, he turned to a career adviser for help. He walked into the Reid Street offices of what is now called the Department of Workforce Development, took a ticket, and waited for his name to be called.
“A lady called me into her office and asked me what I wanted to do with myself. I had to think about it,” he said.
“I said I would like to get into a field where I can work both indoors and outdoors.
“She asked me to come in on Monday morning at 8.30am sharp — and that was my introduction to land surveying. I had never seen anything like it as a possible opportunity in any career fair. I got a taste of it that summer with the Ministry of Works and Engineering and I got bit by the bug. I never looked back.”
Then 18, Mr McIlwain went on to gain experience as a survey assistant for several years.
His employers were keen for him to go abroad to gain his professional designation and, despite reservations he had over his poor school grades, he finally bit the bullet and applied for university in 2007.
It took him five years to gain his Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors designation and he was officially recognised at the age of 28.
“Anybody who thinks it is easy going abroad, leaving your family and being in a different country is wrong,” he said.
“It’s tough, but you have to face it head on. It makes it sweeter when you can actually accomplish it.
“I had my work experience, which worked in my favour. I applied and got accepted. I decided to go to University of East London and I attacked it in a way I should have attacked high school. Surveying is math-based — I was learning quantitative math, algebra, trigonometry and calculus.”
By this time, Mr McIlwain had married. His wife, a middle-distance runner who specialised in 800-metre races, was a member of the US Olympic team in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
She became a great source of inspiration.
“During the final leg of my journey, she motivated me every step of the way. When you go to sleep and wake up next to a champion, there is no way that winning can’t penetrate your mindset.
“My boss, Sean Patterson, and RICS assessor, Nana Turkson, all played vital roles on my support team. There is no way I could have gotten here alone.”
Mr McIlwain says his job offers him a variety of interesting roles, the opportunity to meet people and the outdoors/indoors environment he was craving as a young man.
The career is about mapping out the environment and laying out land and property boundaries.
His more unusual jobs include compiling databases of old war department monuments scattered around the island and documenting parish boundary stones that date back to 1899.
“You have to get your foot in the door. You can do that by making headway and looking into what is available,” he advises young people.
“The saying goes you don’t have to be a product of your environment or your circumstances but you can be a product of your decisions and I firmly believe that.”
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