Ten years after she dropped out of high school, Kelli Jo Blair was standing at her kitchen sink, washing dishes from the breakfast she had made for her family. Her three children were playing and fighting in the living room. Country music played in the background.
And then a single song forever changed her life.
“Is there life out there?” Reba McEntire asked in her hit song of that title.
Like the character McEntire portrayed in song, Blair loved her family and motherhood. “But was there more for me? Was I always just going to be ‘someone’s mother’ or ‘someone’s wife?”
Then and there, she determined her answer.
“I knew in my heart and soul that I was made for more,” Blair said. “This was not all that I am. I wanted my own identity and to achieve my own goals as well.”
Her first step on her most improbable journey was obtaining a GED, because she was a high school dropout. Her next step was findng a way to do college from home. She was living in Inez and raising a family there. But by studying in the fully online program, Blair was able to remain in her home community and continue to support her family while earning her degree.
The most recent step was to the podium at an Eastern Kentucky University commencement ceremony, where the summa cum laude graduate shared her amazing life story as student speaker for EKU’s College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Rewind to Sheldon Clark High School in Inez, where as a teenager, Blair “got lost, really lost. On any given day, my teachers could not find me. I had a 1.5 GPA, was truant, and had better things to do than attend school. Or so my arrogant teenage mind thought.”
So, it’s no surprise that her journey through college as an E-Campus psychology major was one of overcoming self-doubt and fear – “fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough (or) too old, even fear of public speaking.”
Her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in autism and developmental disabilities testifies that she overcame those fears the only way she knew how – by facing them head-on.
“You cannot grow without fear,” Blair declared to her fellow graduates. “If it isn’t scary for you, it isn’t growth. If growth was a sunflower, then fear would be the fertilizer and sunlight the determination.”
It was also a journey of self-discovery. Blair “flourished by facing these fears (and) discovered I am a writer, a leader, an advocate and a motivator. And, now, a college graduate. All things I never thought of myself before this journey.”
She began to submit her writing, and several of her articles have been published. She started a local autism support group. She even leads a women’s group focused on mental health, goal-setting, motivating and inspiring each other.
“That one decision to attempt my GED changed my life completely,” Blair said. “It sparked a fire inside of me that has not been put out yet. It broke me out of my shell and gave me the tenacity and drive to reach for more. It was a defining moment in my life.”
Recalling her own experiences, Blair told her classmates: “Today is not an ending. It is a beginning. There is so much more you can do now that you armed with knowledge. You can change the world. You have the ability; you just need to harness it.
“Never give up and never underestimate yourself,” she continued. “Your dream is achievable. Believe in yourself, even if no one else does. All it takes is one person to believe in you, and that one person is you.”
Blair plans now to pursue a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling and eventually become certified in applied behavior analysis.
McEntire asked, and Blair answered. Yes, indeed, there is life out there.