Growing up in San Pedro with five siblings, Misty Copeland was an introverted kid who struggled to find a passion of her own while her outgoing siblings, with whom she shared everything, had their own hobbies and sports they enjoyed. It wasn’t until she attended her local Boys & Girls Club at 13 years old that she discovered her passion for ballet.
“It was the first time that I felt seen,” Copeland said. “It was the first time I felt confident that I was good at something and that I was being told I was good at something.”
Despite the numerous obstacles she dealt with from a young age, Copeland trained rigorously and went on to become a highly-acclaimed professional ballerina. On Monday, July 25, she spoke to educators and students from the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS program about her life and career during a Zoom meeting hosted as part of the Careers Without Borders series.
Through stories like hers, OCDE Assistant Superintendent Vern Burton and Alternative Education Program Specialist Dr. Nathan Goodly hope to inspire students and show them that their goals are within reach.
This guest speaker series was started in 2020 to introduce a multitude of career options to students while featuring the success stories of those who share similar backgrounds. With the help of Burton and Goodly, students have had the opportunity to hear from over 30 well-known speakers across various industries including film and television, sports and even aerospace.
The Alternative, Community and Correctional Educational Schools and Services, or ACCESS, offers pathways for students to learn in non-traditional settings and gain academic credits necessary to graduate within the program or with their school district.
ACCESS provides opportunities to students from transitional kindergarten to transitional adulthood. Program administrators work with local school districts to offer support and interventions to approximately 10,000 students in need of alternative education options.
Throughout the virtual dialogue between Copeland and moderators Burton and Goodly, students and teachers had the opportunity to send in questions about Copeland’s childhood and how she helped increase opportunities by leaps and bounds for ballet dancers everywhere.
In 2015, Copeland became the first Black woman promoted to the role of principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland said she hopes to show the students that with hard work, dedication and commitment, so much is possible.
Even though her ballet training began at the age of 13 — considered a late start for the profession — Copeland has made an impact in and out of the dance world. In 2014, she was appointed to former President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
“As a minority, as a Black woman, as someone that came from an underprivileged community, I think that it’s a great example to show that with the right support, opportunity and access that you can reach heights and be a part of something that maybe you don’t see yourself in,” Copeland said.
About 16 years after her introduction to ballet at the Boys & Girls Club, Copeland was inducted into the organization’s National Hall of Fame in 2012 and named the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s National Youth of the Year Ambassador a year later. She credits her involvement with the club for the level of success she has reached in her career.
Among the honorary awards, Broadway productions and a New York Times-bestselling book, she reminded the students that she’s most proud of the ways she has strived to inspire others.
“It’s not just about the glamour, traveling the world and performing with certain celebrities — that’s not the beauty of it,” she said. “It’s the journey of getting to where I am and hopefully setting an example for so many.”