Shannon Grady can remember her high school graduation just like it was yesterday.

Walking proudly across the stage, Grady reached out to get her diploma from the vice principal — a man with whom she had always had troubles — when he said, with a sneer, “You will never be any better than this. This is as good as it gets for you.”

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why would you say that to anyone?’” Grady said, her eyes brimming with tears from the hurt remaining even after 30 years.

The vice principal wasn’t the only one with such low expectations. Naysayers often would tell Grady she was bound for a life in food service. After all, she was always in trouble at school. She couldn’t sit still, never listened to her teachers and had difficulty learning new things.

At 24, everything changed when doctors diagnosed her with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a brain disorder that makes it difficult to for a person to pay attention and control impulsive behaviors

“I found out about this, and my whole life changed,” Grady said. “I wasn’t dumb after all. It just took me a little bit longer than usual to learn.”


Proving them wrong

With a newfound confidence — the result of understanding better how the disorder affected her ability to learn — Grady set out to prove everyone wrong.

She had graduated high school with the reading ability of a fourth grader, she said. So her first task was to get her reading and writing ability up to speed, which she did with two years’ worth of classes at a San Diego community college.

While working full-time as a manicurist, Grady completed some prerequisite courses and, in 2004, graduated from Southwestern College with an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management and, in 2010, a master’s degree in education from Northern Arizona University.

Each earned degree bolstered her confidence and validated that she could achieve so much more than her teachers and classmates had expected.


Never too late to start a new career

Last year, after building a solid 15-year dental hygiene career, Grady changed gears, joining the Trojan Dental Family as a DDS student.

“I may not be the most ordinary applicant to your dental program,” wrote Grady, then 47 years old, in her admissions essay to the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. “But I can assure you that I am probably one of the most determined individuals to have come across your desk.”

Throughout her dental hygiene career, Grady had volunteered with several organizations, providing dental care to underserved children, helping senior citizens brush and floss their teeth and providing oral hygiene education to the masses.

She also spearheaded a program called Bright Smiles School-Based Sealant Program for Uninsured Children to ensure Yuma County children at 48 elementary and middle schools were treated with sealants and fluoride and educated about how to prevent decay.

These experiences helped her realize she could be even more effective treating underserved children by earning a DDS degree, which inspired her to take the leap from mid-career security to the uncertainties (and cost) of dental school.


Giving up is not an option

Grady said it was Ostrow’s community oral health focus that caused her to select it over the other dental schools she visited. “I could tell what each dental school was about, whether that was research or whatever,” she said. “This school was the one I could tell was most about community.”

Though she admits dental school isn’t easy when you’re 48, she hopes her story might inspire others — mid-career professionals or her classmates — to never give up on their dreams.

“Find a path you want and volunteer, try it out and see what doors open,” said Grady, who often wears a necklace that says, “Never Give Up.” “I strongly believe that this necklace is the source of my strength at times,”

Whether that is true or she is just being modest, there’s little doubt the words couldn’t better reflect the arduous journey Grady has made from misunderstood high school student to a future Trojan dentist.

— John Hobbs