Step into Shaun Murphy’s home in Lititz and you cannot miss the large, framed photo of Shaun standing with Michelle Obama. The photo, signed by the former First Lady, hangs in prominent placement just inside the front door.
But we need to back this story up to get the full picture on how the Army veteran put himself in position to be invited to the White House. Shaun grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This is no hipster hangout; since the 1950s Brownsville holds the highest poverty and crime rates of any New York City neighborhood. His dad was murdered when he was seven years old.
“I really didn’t know him. I’d see him passing by on the street,” recalls Shaun. “But my mom was strong. Strong enough to be both parents. What I lacked of the male influence I found in the athletic part of the streets, the guys that played ball. I really didn’t go the negative route.”
He owes this to his mother, he says, who hails from Barbados. She has a strong respect for education and its value.
“I was a young grasshopper and I went to college early and I partied. I was a social dude,” admits Shaun, who gained critical thinking skills and some important friendships from college, but he dropped out after only two years. “I knew I couldn’t go back to my neighborhood and my mother. That wasn’t an option.”
He spotted the U.S. Army campaign: Be all you can be. It resounded with him. He joined up and took on a job as a heavy vehicle mechanic and did not like it, but he considers the experience the best thing he could have done. He recognized the positive influence the military was having on his life, so he reenlisted and began to excel. He started taking leadership roles.
“That was transformational for me,” says Shaun. “I still live by the selfless service, the Army values.”
After his service, he joined up with Teach for America, a program formed in 1990 to recruit outstanding and diverse leaders to teach for two years in a low-income community; after two years, the teachers become part of the TFA alumni network. While with TFA, Shaun taught sixth through eighth grade special education in Wilmington, Delaware at an all-boys middle school.
“I’m a vet and I know what I bring to the classroom. Some of the skill sets are easily transferable,” says Shaun, who had an idea to recruit veterans into the classroom. At the time there was no veteran enterprise in TFA. A year later he was asked to start the exact program he envisioned and fielded a call from the office of Vice President Joe Biden requesting he come to Washington to brief staff and Obama on the program.
“Our initiative went under the umbrella of professionals changing careers,” explains Shaun. “I was talking to lieutenant colonels, sergeant majors, and these are people who have led thousands of people.”
“Shaun Murphy … he has been promoted to lead Teach for America’s nationwide effort to hire more veterans as teachers,” announced Michelle Obama, asking Shaun to stand and be recognized for his efforts during a press conference in 2013. (SEE VIDEO ON YOUTUBE)
“Then I got to meet her and Joe Biden,” says Shaun, who invited the VP to his classroom. Shaun says Biden made a joke about the size of Shaun’s arms—he’s a muscular dude—and later that day his phone lit up with friends and family asking what he had said to the VP on national TV to make him laugh. “The big take away for me was… I told my students in life you have opportunities and you have to seize them. So, for them to see me on TV in this space was huge. It was a big picture thing.”
Around the same time as Shaun taking the reins of the TFA’s Military Veterans Initiative, he moved to Lancaster to be closer to his soon-tobe wife, an F&M alum working at LGH. Quickly putting down roots, Shaun started working with Habitat for Humanity and Leadership Lancaster. Leadership Lancaster’s Core Class acclimated him to “all things Lancaster.”
“It’s a deep dive into who you are as a leader and a person,” says Shaun, who now teaches a freshman seminar at HACC focusing on motivation, time management, and direction. “That’s my part in trying to create a pipeline of talent to our community and community leadership.”
If every picture is worth a thousand words, then the photo hanging in Shaun’s hall is just a preamble to the effect he has had and continues to make on the world.