Life was never easy for Devella Steffen.
She grew up in government housing in Richmond, her family relying on food stamps that often went toward chicken pot pies, a dish she decries to this day. At school, she was the girl “everyone felt the need to bully,” and she could only dream of owning her own “beautiful, shiny” car like the ones she saw in a neighboring subdivision.
Between the ages of 20 and 25, while her military service included a deployment to Iraq, she gave birth to two sons and a daughter. After suffering spinal damage and earning an honorable discharge from the Army, Steffen enrolled in 2006 at Eastern Kentucky University. But, at age 26, the struggles were only beginning when her husband walked out, leaving her to shepherd their three children alone.
“There were nights I cried and, because money was scarce, I was unable to eat,” Steffen recalled. “Christmas was always left empty. My children lived mostly on cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. I never wanted pity and, being a veteran, didn’t want anybody to know that we were struggling.”
Her father, Oba Cox, who had worked at EKU’s heat plant before suffering a stroke, passed away in 2008, leaving her mother, Janet Cox, to work double shifts at Frisch’s to make ends meet. But what a proud day it was for Mrs. Cox and the three children, then 8, 6 and 3, when Steffen crossed the commencement stage on Dec. 19, 2009, to receive a bachelor’s degree in computer electronics networking.
Two days later, she became a full-time employee for the Department of Defense, a GS-9 help desk tech. Today, as a GS-12 with a VA disability, Steffen commands a six-figure salary as a systems administrator and records manager for the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. She and her second husband own a four-bedroom house “with land to boot”; she’s preparing “real” meals with fresh produce; and she finally owns her beautiful, shiny car, a 2016 Jeep Wrangler Sahara “with upgrades.” She was even able to buy her mother a “nice red car with a sunroof, because that is what she wanted.”
If Steffen’s path to prosperity was a rocky one, it was also paved with unflinching love and support from family and friends; one very special fifth-grade teacher; the Upward Bound program; and EKU faculty and staff, especially in the College of Business and Technology, who supported “my ability to reach goals that I never believed possible.”
Steffen’s story may not have had a happy ending if not for Joan Kleine, her fifth-grade teacher at Mayfield Elementary. Mrs. Kleine, the wife of longtime EKU professor/administrator Dr. Glen Kleine, “opened my eyes when she told us about opportunities if you go to college.” The long-time elementary teacher made a memorable promise to all her students, vowing to send them $50 if they sent her an invitation to their high school graduation ceremonies and $100 for an invitation to their college ceremonies.
“At that age, all I could think of was the new Pound Puppy stuffed animal I wanted. Then she explained the importance of getting an education and showed our class the salary comparisons of those with an education to those without an education. I was poor. I never thought I would ever fit in. She saw potential in me that I didn’t know I had. That always stuck with me, the idea that I could make more even when I started with less.”
Because of the constant bullying in school, “I don’t know that I would have made it through four years of teen torture had it not been for the protection my sister gave me,” Steffen recalled. “I made it through with the love and support of my family, as well as Dr. and Mrs. Kleine,” who became her godparents when she turned 11.
Steffen loved her time in Upward Bound, a federally funded college preparatory program for promising but disadvantaged high school students, “for the simple fact that, for once, I felt like I belonged in the college society. No one bullied me.”
Determined to build a brighter future for herself and her family but still unsure of her abilities, Steffen enrolled at EKU.
“I needed something better in my life, something my kids would be proud of,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back to factory life, and I really didn’t want to go through a life of hardship flipping burgers with three kids, especially after my husband left us. I knew there was something better to be had. I just needed to do right by my kids.”
She met her future husband, Daryl Steffen, in 2008. “He gave me strength, helped me with purchasing stuff for projects, eased my mind when I was stressed about food or bills, and is an amazing role model for my children, which gave me peace when I was busy with school and work.”
Steffen also met “amazing” friends who helped her study for exams, lifted her spirits after her first husband left, and even cried with her when she lost her father.
Then there was the EKU faculty.
Dr. Jeffery Kilgore “had a positive attitude and never gave up on us. He was willing to stay after hours to help and guide any student who was struggling ... and, to this day, I know I can email him with a problem and he would take the time to help.”
Dr. Vigs Chandra “prepared us for what we could expect in a real situation. He was tough, but clear on his expectations.”
Steffen also “enjoyed every class” taught by Dr. Ted Lloyd, now retired. “When we thought we had solutions, we were shown a solution that didn’t even cross our minds. (He) had a way to make sure we were outside-of-the-box thinkers.”
And it was Dr. Glen Kleine who “proudly showed me around the school,” introducing Steffen to many of her future professors.
Just as she benefited from those and many other mentors in her own life, today Steffen never squanders an opportunity to counsel her children and even their classmates about the importance of higher education.
“When it comes to my children, they know their requirement is to get a degree,” she said. “I remind them of where we were and where we are, and I give full credit to my education at EKU. No one will ever tell me different!
“Every friend of my children who steps foot in my house knows that I will ask them about school and future college plans. I love asking my daughter’s friends (Autumn is now 11). They come up with some weird plans, but as least they are thinking about it.” The Steffens’ oldest son, Ethyn, now 16, will study video production while serving in the military, and the younger son, David, 13, plans a career in structural engineering.
“Best of all, Christmas is filled with love, food and toys, We even get to choose a child from the angel tree every year, and my daughter collects canned goods to give to the local church for her birthday.”
It turns out that Steffen’s “life-changing” experience at EKU may ultimately impact generations to come, even those outside their family circle.
“I remind my children of where we were compared to where we are, and I give full credit to my education at EKU,” Steffen said. “No one will ever tell me different!”