Growing up in a military family in Elmira, New York, there was never any doubt in Shaun Castle’s mind that he would enlist. That day came in October 2000. He joined the U.S. Army, traveled the world and loved every second of it.
But in 2003, his dreams of a full military career were shattered.
During a training exercise in Heidelberg, Germany, he suffered three herniated discs and two cracked vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. On Dec. 31, 2004, Sgt. Shaun Castle was honorably discharged.
With his dream dead, no backup plan and now a paraplegic, he was devastated, depressed and in a lot of pain.
While being rehabilitated at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, he was introduced to wheelchair basketball and through it met Ford Burrtram, who at the time was the assistant coach for wheelchair basketball at The University of Alabama.
Burrtram joked that if he ever became head coach, Castle would have to come to UA to play for him. While playing wheelchair basketball in Leon, France, he received that phone call.
“When I was overseas Ford contacted me and said ‘are you ready to come home?’” Castle said. “But I didn’t want to come back as an adult learner, though, and sit in a classroom.”
Ford had a solution. He introduced him to Ana Self Schuber, the manager of New College’s LifeTrack program.
LifeTrack specializes in helping adults with busy lives complete an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program in their own time.
For Castle, it was the perfect fit.
He entered the program in August 2014 with 32 credit hours already under his belt. Half of those he received from LifeTrack as experiential credits, which are credit hours the program gives to people who have legitimate work experience in the degree area they’re specializing in.
He specialized in communication and organizational leadership, completing his degree in August 2017. He’s now pursuing his master’s at UA.
“LifeTrack gave me time to be an adult, live my life and still get my degree. It is amazing. It affords people who couldn’t otherwise do so the flexibility to be a student.” — Sgt. Shaun Castle
Schuber said LifeTrack started in 1973 as part of a movement on campus called “University Without Walls.” The focus of the program was to get people out of the classroom, into experiential learning and critical thinking.
Though it now has a different name, the program’s mission hasn’t changed, but it has grown. It now reaches people around the world through the internet.
“What happens is an adult student decides to return to school,” Schuber said. “They find they can’t move up in their jobs because they do not have a degree. Or, a lot of them come back because it’s a dream they haven’t fulfilled. We have several CEOs of their companies who just come back to get their degree.”
The program has nearly 3,000 graduates, including football legend Joe Namath, who only needed 17-19 hours to graduate when he left UA to go pro in 1964. He said he made a promise to his mother to finish, and he finally did that in 2007.
“We work with you the minute you come in to the minute you leave,” Schuber said.
“The classes are held on their own time, their schedule. One of our graduates took 20 years to finish.”
As of Nov. 6, Castle was named national deputy executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America.
He said if it weren’t for LifeTrack, he wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.
“New College LifeTrack gave me this opportunity to back up my experience with an education. I’ve done so many things, met so many people, traveled the world, but to roll across the stage at UA and see that A, to look in the audience and see my family and everyone sitting there on graduation day, there’s nothing else that compares to that.
“It’s the proudest day of my life, hands down.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.