A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: What makes your college that ‘special’ school? Kentuckians share their thoughts

Note: Following is the first of a two-part article about individuals sharing comments about their “special college” in Kentucky.

It was always a given that I’d go to college after graduating from Campbell County High School back in 1971. The best I could tell, there were few in the Flairty or Fryer lineage who set forth on that path, so I guess I was a bit of a pioneer. Understandably, the particular choice of a college became pretty important to this nervous, vulnerable young soul because at the time I wasn’t the most adaptable person. As long as it was affordable, my parents let me make the decision.

I chose Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) after I took a visit with a friend, who later became my roommate in #238 Martin Hall. From home in Claryville, it was two hours away. I wanted to get away from the tobacco field and spread my wings a bit. I wanted a school bigger than my high school (about 1600 students), but that big campus in Lexington was too big. EKU was the right size, yet gave me room to roam and engage with a number of small groups, namely of the church kind. I needed the social growth, but going Greek was not my style.

I thrived, gaining confidence and encountered mostly really good teachers; and, I made pretty good grades, maybe better than high school. Occasionally I got a bit homesick, but a trip back to Claryville once every few weeks helped. Fast forwarding, EKU and the three degrees I eventually obtained made it special then…and special now. I root extra hard for the school’s sports teams and I ache when there are program cuts, such as are currently happening. For me, it’s EKU now and evermore.

Realizing that others might feel similarly toward other Kentucky colleges, I asked some friends to share their “special” schools, and why. It was an invigorating activity as responses came with telling passion.

A former student of mine, Liza Lamb, 28, also has good things to say about EKU, especially about how the school supports her struggles dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). “EKU is special to me because I can finish my entire psychology degree online and work at the same time,” said Liza. “Their office of accessibility is discrete and friendly. I don’t feel like a “special needs student” when I go there. Rather, I am treated with kindness as they provide a distraction-free for me to complete my exams.”

Roger Garrison

Roger Garrison, of Nicholasville, is a retired music teacher who started his career by attending Georgetown College on advice from the music minister at his church, who suggested he visit the school. His family couldn’t afford Georgetown College but their income was too high to get significant aid. Roger got a good break, though.

“I was the youngest of five and my grandmother had put away a little money to help us all go to college,” said Roger. “Some of my siblings chose different paths and her savings allowed me to go. Georgetown is a wonderful college where everybody knows everybody. But it isn’t the college but the path that is special.”

Someone at the school suggested he might add education classes to his music classes in case teaching became an option. Roger did, and he also became a guest soloist at a church in Bourbon County and eventually the music minister there. “I fulfilled God’s will that I be a music teacher and music minister because of Georgetown College,” he noted.

Susie Hillard

Susie Hillard, of Lexington, called her time as a Berea College student “the richest experience of my life.” That was after saying, as a high schooler, that “college wasn’t on my radar.” Her mother made sure she took the ACT, and also promised that Susie was free to come home after the first semester if she “truly hated it.” Well, she didn’t.

“Two weeks into it, a team of mules couldn’t have dragged me away,” Susie said with a grin. “I was in a place with people from many countries and states, as well as from Appalachia. Most of us were from the same tax bracket, poor. It was a chance to start over, reinvent myself, explore, learn, and make lifelong friends who remain close, in spite of great distance.

“By the time I graduated from the small liberal arts college 30 miles and another world from my home, I had learned how to learn, think, and write. My resume included real-life work experience that serves me to this day.”

When one starts college at age 40, that person brings a lot to the classroom. Mainly, it is a “whole life perspective,” and in Bettie Ockerman’s situation, it also turned out to be a boon for her classmates. She started at the University of Kentucky (UK) in 1982 and chose nursing as her major; this was after a skill/personality assessment showed she was not a good fit for a degree to be an English teacher, her original preference.

Bettie Ockerman

Bettie received a scholarship for non-traditional students at UK, and recalls that she was the eldest member of a class of 88 students. “Because the professors wanted to see this atypical student succeed, they were kind, patient, encouraging and supportive,” she said. Another reason the faculty liked her might be that Bettie helped others through their common experience.

“It was second nature to ‘mother’ my far younger classmates,” she said, “so I held study groups in my home, making sure the kids had something nourishing to eat and were ready for the next scheduled exams. In helping them understand nursing concepts, I learned them too!”

On the walls of the College of Nursing at UK, Bettie’s picture, at age 46, is hanging amongst the younger graduates. That’s special for her. “My years at UK were a major highlight,” she said. She praised the faculty and called her classmates “a gift,” along with saying her years as a nurse, started at UK, were “fulfilling and rewarding.”

Shannon Nichols wanted to go to a college that was “far from home (Versailles) but still in Kentucky and incredibly affordable.” He chose Murray State University, in western Kentucky. He believed that staying close to home “would be too much like going back to high school and I needed to ‘shake off my old normal’ to be able to grow as my own person,” he explained. “Thankfully, Murray also had fantastic accredited programs and I was especially pulled by what became my major fields of study: engineering, physics, and education.”

He also liked the fact that Murray was only a 20-minute drive from “the national treasure that is Land between the Lakes” and commented positively on the small campus being walking distance from important amenities in the community. Shannon talked about opportunities to get involved in extracurricular activities at Murray, and interaction with the faculty was a real plus. Then, there was his tangible faith connection at the school.

“For an introvert like me, I would have missed so much of it had my campus ministry, Christ Ambassadors, not challenged me to see that my time at college was about so much more than studying to get the fancy piece of paper to get the job to make the money and so on. And that’s probably my favorite thing about Murray, the people and how they help you to realize and to remember how much everything connects and everything matters.”

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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