Failure to fruition: Abigail Wheetley shares story of failure to inspire success

By Austin Phelps, Staff Reporter

Abigail Wheetley failed out from the university but stayed determined to succeed – she is now teaching with the Saluki Success Program, this time around with two master’s degrees.

As part of the curriculum for her University 101 classes, Wheetley openly shares her story of failure with her students; guiding them to campus resources that she was unaware of during her time in school.

“Failure is not the opposite of success – it’s part of it,” Wheetley said.

The Beginning

Wheetley was raised in Ithaca, New York before moving to Carbondale when she was 16. Her parents both received their master’s degrees from Cornell University and moved here after her mother had received a job offer at SIU.

“I had a very granola upbringing,” Wheetley said. “My mother was the first wave of feminists in the ’70s and so she decided to go to school because she thought […] if she was happy and had a fulfilled life, her children would also be happy.”

Beth Lordan, Wheetley’s mother and former creative writing professor at the university, said Wheetley became unhappy after leaving New York.

“We had taken her away from all of her friends, everything that she knew,” Lordan said. “She was pretty miserable the first day of school, so I took her out of school and she got her GED.”

Wheetley said she was bullied at school and unhappy. The transition from one high school to another was not a smooth process, so she decided to be homeschooled.

“Getting a GED was the only way to graduate at that time if you didn’t attend public school,” Wheetley said.

Growing up, Wheetley wanted to either be a teacher or a writer, she said. She was influenced by her parents being involved in the same field.

“Writing was the only thing that I was good at, so I wanted to find some way to do that,” Wheetley said. “I don’t think I had any specific plans and I think that was part of the problem.”

Lordan said she remembers suggesting Wheetley write movie reviews.

“She said ‘No ma, I want to hang out with my friends and go to movies and I want to do this for a job,’” Lordan said.

Entering College and Failing Out

Wheetley said when she applied to college, it was just the next step for her.

“I don’t think I thought about it critically or really invested too much of what any of it meant, it’s just the next thing you do,” Wheetley said.

Wheetley said that there were very high expectations on her success in college.

“[There was a] feeling of independence – that I was going to do this myself and I was going to succeed and I was going to do well,” Wheetley said. “I just assumed I would figure it out as I went along… but I didn’t.”

Wheetley said she majored in English because she wanted to be a creative writer.

“So I took a literature class, English 101, history and something else. Maybe health? It doesn’t matter – I failed them all,” Wheetley said. “I think that my expectations were that I would come here, take classes and be happy […] but the details of that were very fuzzy.”

Wheetley said she didn’t know how to go about asking for help, so she would wander around the library for hours.

“There were people here to help me, I just didn’t know who they were [or] how to access them,” Wheetley said. “I just got really depressed and I started realizing it was pointless to try, so I stopped trying and just waited it out and left.”

Naomi Arseneau, coordinator of clinical placements and Wheetley’s best friend of 25 years, said it seemed like Wheetley had fallen into having freedom like a lot of college freshmen do.

“You don’t know how to balance freedom with this actual academic side of school,” Arseneau said. “And what’s more fun, the academic side of school or the social side? Usually the social side.”

Wheetley said she first noticed she was going to fail when she got an “F” on her history assignment and that is when she realized she could choose her life’s path and one of the options was to stop going to college.

She said failure meant a way out.

“It was an escape hatch – I could just bail out of this,” Wheetley said. “I had done what I was supposed to do, it hadn’t worked and now we could all just talk about something else.”

Five Years of Retail

After failing out of college her first time around, Wheetley spent five years working numerous retail jobs.

“Those were the lost years,” Wheetley said. “I will say that I have never been so poor. I have never worked so hard.”

Wheetley said she traveled for a while after failing out and was on the road hitchhiking, having a kind of Jack Kerouac experience. When that got cold and unpleasant, she moved to Mt. Vernon.

“I got a job at Dairy Queen, I was fired from Dairy Queen, I was a terrible worker at Dairy Queen,” Wheetley said. “I moved back to upstate New York, got a job at Sears and I gave birth to a child who was born severely disabled and terminally ill.”

Wheetley said when her child, Anastasia, died at the age of two, she had an extremely difficult time and mourned deeply.

“I will say that her life and time in my family humbled me in ways I never would have imagined, while also revealing to me what I was made of,” Wheetley said.

Wheetley then had her second child, Dexter, who is now a freshman at the university.

A Second Chance

With a son to raise, Wheetley said she decided that working for $5 an hour wasn’t going to cut it and she needed a college education. She was given an opportunity by one of her mother’s friends who was a professor at the university.

Wheetley would audit his class for a semester and if she passed, he would give her the grade she earned that year in the following semester.

“That was what I needed, I needed someone to just give me a chance,” Wheetley said. “I internalized failure that first semester and I thought I was bad at school or that I wasn’t smart […] so that semester gave me the opportunity to prove to myself and everyone else that I was good at this.”

Wheetley graduated from the university in 2004, 10 years after she had received her GED.

Wheetley said failure now provides information; when she fails at something now, she identifies what went wrong, what mistake she made and any communication problems there may have been.

“Do not internalize failure – ever,” Wheetley said. “This is never evidence that you are not good enough or smart enough. It’s evidence that something went awry, and that can be a variant of factors, most of which you have control over.”

Saluki Succession

Wheetley said she shared her story of failure when interviewing for her position as a professor in the Saluki Success Program.

“I thought there [are] so many students that are going to be able to relate to that or are going to see themselves in the things that Abby experienced,” said Nick Wishenskey, coordinator of the Saluki Success Program.

Wishenskey said since the spring semester began, there has been a revolving door of students in and out from Wheetley’s office and a student even brought his father to the school in order to introduce him to Wheetley because she had made such an impact on his life. 

“If I can play any part in the role in helping a student become successful –  it’s worth all of it,” Wheetley said. “I have never been happier.” 

Staff reporter Austin Phelps can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @austinphelps96.

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