Frankfort, KY – For 23 Kentucky State University graduates, the sky is now the limit. At least that is how they feel now that they have finally completed their bachelor’s degrees.
KSU graduated its second cohort of Project Graduate students in May, and it has more than 120 other students working toward degree completion. The program began in 2007 as a statewide initiative launched by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education to increase the number of Kentucky residents who have their bachelor’s degree. Project Graduate targets students who earned at least 90 credit hours before they left college for financial, familial or other reasons and encourages them to consider finishing their degrees.
Though it is a statewide program, each of the Kentucky public universities was given the parameters of the program and allowed to develop its own method for recruiting and assisting students in completing their degrees.
At KSU, the Office of Enrollment Management assumed the program and created a one-stop shop concept where students have an advocate and guide in Juanita Burrell, transfer coordinator. When prospective students contact KSU about finishing their degrees, they meet with Burrell, who explains the program. Then, she meets with Drs. Thomas McPartland and Tucker Landy in the Whitney Young School of Liberal Studies to evaluate candidates’ transcripts and to devise a program of completion for the students.
She also links students to other services on campus, such as Roberta Mason, who helps older students find areas of their careers or lives that would translate into course credit. Burrell helps the students find ways to pay off old student debt so they are eligible to re-enroll.
“It’s critical that our candidates have a strong advocate, and Mrs. Burrell is exactly that,” said Dr. Roosevelt Shelton, associate vice president of enrollment management and Project Graduate director. “She brings a great deal of empathy to her work, because several years ago she was an adult learner aspiring to complete her degree. She now wants to pass on the opportunity for access and to realize one’s dreams of degree attainment.”
More than 450 students who qualified for the program were informed of the opportunity via postcards, letters, e-mails, Christmas cards, radio advertisements, the university Web site or word of mouth. Now, increasingly more students are coming to KSU based on referrals from students already enrolled in the program.
“To anyone who is considering entering Project Graduate, I would tell them to do some soul searching to see if they are willing to recommit to school,” said Melissa Benton, a 2009 graduate. “Then, they just need to pick up the phone and start the process. Just take it one step at a time. That way it is not so overwhelming.”
Benton was KSU’s first Project Graduate student. The staff coordinator of the Kentucky Interagency Council on Homelessness left Appalachian State University in 1980 because she really had no other choice. Her grandmother had recently died, she lost her car and she had no support network. She could not physically, emotionally or financially afford to continue her college career.
Not completing her degree was a burden she always bore, and she wanted to resolve her guilt. After hearing about the new program, she contacted KSU and met with Shelton, Burrell, McPartland, Registrar John Martin and representatives from admissions, financial aid and other areas of the campus.
“From that first meeting it was very clear to me that as a university they were doing what they could to help Project Graduate students succeed,” Benton said. “The meeting alone empowered me to go to the next step.”
Once enrolled, Project Graduate students are put on a fast-track degree-completer program. Most are close to earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. Many have the necessary number of credits to graduate, but they are lacking core classes such as foreign language, math and science and senior-level study in some areas.
Like Benton, Arthur Box knew it was time to re-enter school when he heard about Project Graduate. Once he contacted Burrell, everything just fell into place. A year later, when he finally walked across the stage to accept his bachelor’s degree, the former Thorobred basketball player likened the experience to winning the National Basketball Championship his freshman year. He was nervous, excited and his heart was beating a mile a minute.
“This degree opens a door that would otherwise be closed,” Box said. “When people are looking to qualify applicants, especially African American applicants, they want the cream of the crop. This will get you an interview, where not having a degree, even if you had all of the experience, would not get you an interview.”
Box already had an associate degree in architectural drafting, but he said often there were times when he could have been promoted or paid more if he only stuck around to complete his student teaching, the last requirement of his bachelor’s degree in education. But with a wife and children at the time, he couldn’t afford to stop working.
In the meantime, the transportation engineer and technician III for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet had taken multiple classes at the Governmental Services Center on campus, which translated into course credit. He found out that all he needed to complete his degree was a cooperative work experience, which he could complete at his job, and two foreign language classes.
“I can’t say it was a cakewalk,” Box said. “Spanish was tough. But anything worthwhile is never easy.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, because I knew I could get an A,” Box said. “I took the class seriously. I was not a kid anymore, so I knew I needed to pay attention and do well.”
In return, he found he could focus more at work and retain more from work meetings.
“Your mind is a muscle, and you have to exercise it,” Box said.
However, sometimes even the most focused minds need a little help. After 30 years of not studying mathematical and scientific concepts, Gregg Muravchick needed a little assistance. The executive director of the Office of Investigations in the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet had to take a math and two science courses to finish his degree. Not many things intimidate the 30-year veteran of law enforcement, but algebraic equations are definitely one of them.
Luckily, he learned about the Academic Center for Excellence, KSU’s tutoring center, and used the center to clarify concepts he did not understand, to study for tests and to help him with his homework. As a result, he earned an A in all of his courses.
“At 54, I was a little skeptical about going back, but everyone I have talked to has made this a great experience,” Muravchick said. “I promote KSU in
my position and talk about what the university has done for me. I was already doing what I loved, but a degree does open doors, and I wanted to set an example for my children.”
While both Box and Muravchick wanted to be an inspiration for their children and grandchildren, Eldwayne Parker was an inspiration to her co-workers at Quebecor World in Versailles. They had seen her struggle through and master her classes. She told them if she could do it, they could do it.
“I am the oldest one here, and I know if I can go back after all of that time, they can, too,” Parker said.
Parker returned to Kentucky and to KSU when she could not find a good paying job in Texas. Though she began taking classes in 2005, her classes were not quickly adding up to a degree. She consulted with Burrell and was enrolled in Project Graduate. Less than a year later, she had her diploma.
When graduation day rolled around, Parker said she could barely contain her excitement. It had been a day she had waited for 33 years to experience.
“It was the best day of my life,” Parker said. “I worked so hard for it.”
George L. Johnson Jr. already has ascended to the top of his field. He is a material procurement specialist and expediter for the University of Alabama at Birmingham and works at the administrative level. A degree would not necessarily help him in his present position, but he would like to become a coach, and knows a degree is necessary to land his dream job of instructing athletes.
Plus, the former Thorobred football player had something to prove to his mother. When he left KSU to help his family care for his ailing father, Johnson promised his mother he would return to school. It just took him a while.
He is thankful that he found out about the program in time for his mother to see him graduate.
“I wanted her to actually see me walk instead of me just telling her that I graduated,” Johnson said. “She traveled up (to Frankfort) with me for graduation. After the ceremony, we all started crying together. This was something we both had been looking forward to for a long time.”
The Project Graduate Office is ASB 323, and the phone number is (502) 597-6462. For more information, e-mail Juanita.firstname.lastname@example.org or Roosevelt.email@example.com.