Widowed Father of Six Earns Master’s Degree After NACTEL Founder’s Award and Oprah Feature – Inspiring You to Reach New Heights!

Carlo Bertolini / June 30, 2023 

“If I can do it, you can do it,” he likes to tell people, especially his coworkers. It’s a message he shared in his latest video, for Pace University. What he often hears in response is: “I really would like to, but every time they say that, I stop them in their tracks,” said Slim. He tells them that whatever they want to say after the “but” is what is holding them back. And rarely, if ever, is it something as daunting as the obstacles Slim overcame. While his NACTEL education benefits, provided via Verizon and Communications Workers of America, covered the costs of his courses, it took his own commitment to seal the deal. Failure to pass the courses would have required him to repay the expenses.

Education benefits are linked to greater employee satisfaction, lower turnover, and accelerated career advancement. But they are underutilized. The employee-borne costs of a reimbursement model are common disincentives, although the Verizon NACTEL program covers expenses up front. As CAEL’s fellow Strada Collaborative member InsideTrack noted via a Strada Public Viewpoint survey, self doubt is also a common obstacle. “I believe that we sometimes think that we can’t do it, we’re past our time for that,” said Slim of adult learners. That’s why he thinks the “You can lead a horse to water …” analogy only partially explains their reticence. “The other part of it is, ‘Can you teach an old dog new tricks?’ Sometimes the old dog has to want to learn a new trick.”

Why would they want to? Slim again pointed to his own story. While he’s always had a general passion for learning, there was a practical motivation behind his decision to add another degree. He recalled that when he began his career, copper wire dominated data transport and cell car phones were the size (and maybe weight) of bricks. “We are all creatures of learning,” he said, arguing that that learning must occur faster and more frequently than ever if we want to transform information into knowledge. “You have so much smart stuff that we become dumb. Everything is doing everything for us, and that’s why I wanted to keep going to school and keep my momentum going. The world is changing so quickly, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Slim’s point isn’t that everyone has to tap into the next tech trend but about encouraging people to tap into their individual potential to be lifelong learners. He continues his mentorship at People’s Prep, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey, and lately has been starting his presentations with a Maya Angelou quote: “Nothing will work unless you do.” He follows this with an activity that has the students connect dots to reveal a light bulb. “I had everybody shouting out different things that they thought it could be,” said Slim. At the end, he told them it was the light that is inside each of them. He asked them to consider that everything is connected and that, just like a light bulb, it is those connections that keep the light shining.

Slim says his message resonates with the students — confirmed by his daughter, an aspiring teacher, who accompanies him. ” I don’t look at them as kids, I look at them as the future,” he said. He thinks his effectiveness in mentoring high school students comes from embracing the role of mentor to his own children. Thanks to the online format of his recent degrees, he was able to ensure they were on top of their homework even as he toiled on his own. His oldest daughter has completed college, and his younger children are all honor roll students. Last year, he attended four separate graduations, ranging from kindergarten (his grandson) to college.

As for adult learners, he has a wealth of experiential learning that informs the advice he offers them. Prior to his IT degrees, he completed all but 17 credits of a film program at NYU, where he attended in person. As the only native New Yorker and car owner, he found himself playing tour guide for his classmates. He says he enjoyed the opportunity to experience some of the “traditional” college experiences he missed out on. But he noticed a contrast between his approach to academics and his fellow students’. While most of them were supported by their parents, he had to ensure he kept his grades up to remain qualified for his education benefits. “That’s when I became more in tune with not just getting a passing grade but to get a good GPA.”

To maintain that focus and motivation, Slim suggests challenging yourself. “At first I thought if I could get a B+ and still take care of my family and still go to work, that B+ was my A,” he said. While such a mark would be impressive on its own, it was only a rung on the ladder for Slim. “When I got my first A, I said, ‘You know what? I got that, I can get more.'” It paid off, as he was able to transfer his credits to Pace, helping to propel his progress there. He also credits his studies in the film program for developing important essential skills that complement the hard skills he built on the job and at Pace.

Although he said that the online environment of his computer science program initially gave him pause as a “people person,” he quickly grew to appreciate the flexibility it gave him. The virtual modality saved him gas money while enabling him to study between preparing meals for his family. Discussion boards allowed him to maintain a productive dialog with faculty and fellow students. But with the freedom of online learning comes a greater urgency to be organized, he said. “If you want to succeed as an adult learner, you have to set up a system. You might have one day for reading your books and one day for writing your outlines.” His workflow included a rainbow of markers, with different colors assigned to different topics and assignments. (Orange was his favorite, purple his least favorite because it obscured the text.) “I developed a system that helped me maintain a clear mind. You have to know when you’re going to do this, when you’re going to do that, and you layer out your week. It can be done.”

As for what Slim will do next, for now, he’s basking in what he admits is a surreal role reversal. “I did all of this so my kids could say to themselves, ‘You know what Dad did, we can do it too.’” After his graduation ceremony, they took him out to eat, honoring a tradition he had established to celebrate their own numerous educational milestones. He was conflicted watching them pick up the tab. After preparing and providing so many meals for them, he felt sheepish and proud at the same time. But as he told their waitress, “This is what happens when you have great kids.”

He shares his perspective in the hope it inspires learners of all ages to focus the light within them along fulfilling education and employment pathways. His story has attracted lots of attention, from CAEL’s Learner of the Year award to Verizon to Oprah Winfrey, who, Slim says, became a “superfan” of his after seeing a video about him and his family.

“Just doing a little bit of good helps me because I know that there are so many blessings that I recognize that I have,” he said. “How CAEL is sharing this story right now I consider a blessing, and if I can consider this a blessing, and somebody reading this could consider it a blessing and could recognize their own blessings, guess what? It’s going to create a domino effect of blessings.”