Degrees of Resilience: EKU Grad Achieves Lifelong Goal of Going to College

Published on May 08, 2024

By Sarah Bashford

Despite dropping out of high school and facing mental and physical challenges while raising a family, Jody Denny never gave up on her dream of getting a college degree. At Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKU) spring commencement ceremony, Denny will stand with her diploma in hand, the culmination of years of dedication and perseverance finally etched in the ink of her hard-earned degree. 

Denny, a Paint Lick native, grew up around the Campus Beautiful as family members worked in facilities management. Being surrounded by EKU through her cumulative years, Denny loved everything about the university. Above all, her goal was to graduate with a degree from the institution she felt was home. 

As a high school student, Denny struggled with mental health which resulted in difficulty attending school. Her goal to go to college remained the same despite grappling with adversity. 

“I told my family my junior and senior years were going to be important for going to college. I’m going to buckle down, go to school, and do great things. I’m going to EKU to get my degree,” said Denny.

She found solace in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter at her school and decided to focus on FFA to achieve her academic goals. As things were looking up, a disagreement with school administration forced Denny to drop out of school. The hardships Denny faced made it difficult to trust herself.

“I had to wait until I was 18 to get my GED. I felt like somebody else was telling me what my value was when I knew better,” said Denny. “So all these years, you know, I get married, I have children, I'm going job to job. I'm good at every job I've ever done. But none of them fulfilled me.”

Combating the discouragement she felt giving up on her dreams of getting higher education, she also suffered from multiple health struggles. 

“I was very sick with my multiple sclerosis. But on top of that, I was very depressed,” said Denny. “For three months, I didn't get off the couch. I was fully disabled for several years and home became a prison.” 

With each passing day, the longing to break free and explore new horizons grew stronger. Denny’s husband, Ricky Cheeks Jr., worked at EKU for 17 years. As an employee, he received an employee tuition waiver as a part of his benefits. He encouraged her to pursue her dreams and begin taking classes through the waiver. 

“He said, ‘It is time for you to do what you feel is right,’” said Denny. “I really learned to listen to myself. Even though I had these feelings over the years, I would have never acted on them. Finally, I learned to just trust myself, trust my instincts – and it's led me all the way here.”

Denny immersed herself in fulfilling her lifelong goal and followed her desire to get the full student experience.

“When I started going to EKU, I had a 30-some-odd-years dream. I wanted to be a college student,” said Denny.  “I got to go and do this every day at 30-something years old, just like I was 18. I walked on campus, bought myself a Jansport backpack and bought a meal plan. Everything that I would have done, I got to do.”

Denny obtained an associate degree in general studies in 2022. However, she knew that wasn’t the end of her academic career. Achieving a bachelor’s degree had been her lifelong goal. Denny enrolled in EKU’s Global Hospitality and Tourism online program to achieve as much as possible.

“When I walk across the graduation stage, I want to look like a Christmas tree. So I have so many stoles and so many cords. I've joined everything that I could possibly join. I've made the very best grades that I can, and I ended up with Latin Honors,” she said. 

Several EKU faculty showed continuous support throughout her academic career. Among these were former EKU President Dr. Michael T. Benson. During his time at EKU and even beyond, Denny says he has never stopped encouraging her to follow her dream.

The Denny’s decided to move to South Carolina while she continued to pursue her bachelor’s degree online. With the help of three of her former teachers, all EKU alumni, the Denny family was able to successfully start over in their new location. Despite moving to a new place, Denny continued to pursue her bachelor’s degree online while working full-time. Currently, she works at Coastal Carolina University as a quality assurance coordinator and was recently appointed to their President’s Advisory Council on Community Engagement.

Denny was honored as senior of the year at EKU's student excellence awards last week. 

“Students like Jody embody what it means to be an EKU Colonel,” said EKU President David McFaddin. “Through many of life's challenges, she continued to follow her lifelong goals with passion, determination and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Jody’s hard work and success remind us that everyone can excel in their studies and achieve their dreams.”

Denny will receive a bachelor’s in global hospitality with a minor in agriculture on May 10, 2024, during the 1:30 p.m. College of Education & Applied Human Sciences and College of Health Sciences spring commencement ceremony held at Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. After graduation, she plans to further her academic career by attending Sam Houston State University in their graduate agriculture program. Additionally, she hopes to become a published author.