Parts of Daniel Sheehan’s childhood were filled with heartbreak and hurdles that tested the human spirit. The 2015 Elon graduate has since made it a personal mission to help others overcome similar challenges.
By Eric Townsend
If there’s one thing Daniel Sheehan ’15 wants you to know, it’s that help exists.
Help exists for the mother who needs home nurses in her battles against breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. Help exists for the father to find stable work in a specialized field. Help exists for the high school senior with limited funding who understands the importance of a college education. Sheehan is also aware that many people don’t know of the resources his own family needed. And as a recipient of a 2015 Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, which cultivates young leaders by placing them for nine months within government, corporate, campaign, labor and nonprofit organizations across the nation, he plans to gain experiences that will help him bring hope to other people.
Beginning this fall, the human service studies and strategic communications double major from North Carolina, is spending nine months in New York City, forging professional and community connections starting with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. In that role, he is identifying ways for local nonprofits to strengthen their relationship with the department and other city groups. He also is researching private-sector employers who might want to partner with the department’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides summer work for people ages 14 to 24. Coro Fellows work in small teams to address wide range of communities, interests, ideologies and experiences. Founded in 1942, Coro is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institute that develops young leaders through placement into philanthropic, corporate, media and civic sectors.
Once his fall work is complete, Sheehan will work briefly for a political campaign and, then, a corporation to broaden his experience working across sectors. Eventually, he hopes his work will make life better for thousands of children and families in New York City who may be struggling against the same challenges he once faced. Growing up, Sheehan and his younger brother, Matthew, an Elon junior, divided their time between divorced parents. Their dad moved frequently around the country for work as an archaeologist, while their mom remained in North Carolina fighting breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. Both environments exposed the young boys to emotional and psychological turmoil. While Daniel Sheehan doesn’t like to share specifics, he notes that he was forced to grow up early, and that past experiences make him a strong voice for marginalized groups.
“My motivation for fostering connections and learning about developing systems comes from multiple points throughout my life where the system didn’t work,” Sheehan says. “I saw those challenges as a 7-year-old, as an 8-year-old, as a 12-year-old, and in college chose not to ignore obstacles, but to question why they exist. I was able to explore parts of myself and parts of the world around me in a more critical way.”
At the end of seventh grade, Sheehan moved in with his maternal grandparents in Cary, N.C. Their constant support and love helped him thrive in high school, where he discovered a passion for advocacy that he brought with him to Elon as an Odyssey Scholar and Leadership Fellow. Once in college, Sheehan studied in Costa Rica; performed with the Vital Signs a cappella group at Carnegie Hall; worked for Live Oak, a student-run public relations agency; volunteered with ElonTHON; and helped launch Elon’s chapter of the Delta Upsilon fraternity.
That type of determination was something his faculty and staff mentors immediately noticed. It took many discussions with professors and administrators to narrow his academic interests. It’s not that Sheehan didn’t know what he wanted to do. He simply didn’t know the best path to take. “He’s got incredible perseverance,” says Associate Professor Judy Esposito, Sheehan’s adviser in the Department of Human Service Studies. “He can be met with all kinds of obstacles, and he views them as challenges instead of barriers.”
Sheehan’s mother, Susan, didn’t live to see him graduate in May. She died in April 2014 from multiple sclerosis, after a battle spanning nearly two decades. Seated Under the Oaks, however, were those closest to him: his brother, Matthew; his grandparents, Russell and Virginia Parasiliti; and his father, Michael, who works for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “Elon gave me the resources and the platform for free reign, to take everything I had and was before college, which was limited in many ways, and learn as though all of those limitations didn’t exist,” Sheehan says. “I could be on a corporate sponsorship committee for ElonTHON, and I could help start a fraternity and an a cappella group. That motivation comes from passion but a little bit of fear as well, a fear of not capitalizing on—or making the most of—the great opportunities I’ve been given.
“I went in with the mindset that I was going to have a transformative experience and I know I’ll continue connecting back to my Elon experience through the rest of my professional career.”