It’s hard to imagine today, but when Kaisee Riddell began her studies at Eastern Kentucky University in August 2015, she was “sort of intimidated by the idea of college,” let alone leading others; had no idea of an academic major; and assumed “every person here would probably be better and smarter than me.”
Riddell was hardly an underachiever at Estill County High School. In fact, she earned numerous college scholarships and has earned more while at Eastern. But her evolution the past four years into one of EKU’s most confident and active student leaders and a summa cum laude May 2019 graduate in communication studies and political science can best be explained by the support network that nourished her, first at home in Irvine and then on the Richmond campus. Like they say, it takes a village.
Riddell’s father, Todd, who reared his daughter “mostly alone,” always “pushed me and encouraged me to work hard so that I could have a better life.”
Once Riddell determined she would get the most out of her college years, it seems nearly every encounter, every experience at Eastern was life-changing. A first-generation college student, Riddell received the I Am EKU award three times, but she’s quick to credit all the faculty and staff who, together with their protégé, personify what the University often calls the “Essential Eastern.”
Her Colonel “village” includes Chris Bogie, who oversees the EKU Dual Credit Program and supervised Riddell on her first campus job, “has always been there for me to offer practical life advice, listen to me tell her everything happening on campus and buy me a coffee here and there, even after I stopped working there.”
Sarah Schultz, associate director of student engagement, with whom Riddell interacted as a Colonel Crew leader, Big E Welcome intern and office worker, “has always been supportive of my endeavors and a great resource to have on my side.” Also from Student Life and First-Year Experience, Deverin Muff” has gone out of his way to help me (and) was always my favorite person to talk to about anything under the sun, especially politics.”
As a McNair Scholar, Riddell learned how to prepare a curriculum vitae, conduct research and prepare for graduate school; had her grad school application fees waived; and was able to apply her scholarship to help fund a memorable study-abroad experience in London in 2018. The McNair experience “has been so amazing,” and Program Director Rich Richmond and Academic Counselor/Coach Debbie Sowers “are always so helpful with anything I need.”
Then there were almost too many inspirational faculty members for Riddell to count.
Dr. Darrin Wilson, formerly of the Department of Government, “was a huge influence on my decision” to pursue a master’s of public affairs (MPA) degree, beginning this fall at Indiana University. Riddell assisted Wilson with some research and was rewarded with a chance to present at the South Eastern Conference of Public Administration.
“At the conference, everyone I met was doing something that I thought was so cool and I could see myself doing as a career. From there, I started to look into public administration as a field, and the rest is history.”
From the Department of Communication, Dr. Eric Meiners, the faculty mentor for Riddell’s McNair research project, “has been so accessible to me as a resource.”
Dr. Russell Carpenter, executive director of the University’s acclaimed Noel Studio for Academic Creativity, where Riddell works as a consultant for the Developing Excellence in Eastern’s Professors Program, “helped me be able to have not one, but two presentations at Pedagogicon, a conference devoted to teaching and learning. ‘Rusty’ also convinced me to accept an offer to join Phi Kappa Phi, which will now allow me to have access to more scholarship applications and resources.”
Riddell, who recently received the Dean’s Award of Merit as the outstanding senior in the College of Letters, Arts, and Social sciences, also gave a “shout out” to Dr. Amy Thieme, associate professor of communication studies. “The one evening that I spent pouring my heart to her about grad school was so beneficial to me. She gave me the affirmation that I needed to feel like pursuing an MPA was the right choice, and the confidence to know that I can do it.”
She also cited the support of faculty members Dr. Lynnette Noblitt, Dr. Anne Cizmar, Dr. Joe Gershtenson, Dr. Jennifer Fairchild, Dr. Karen Rudick and Krista Kimmel. “Basically, every faculty member in both of my departments have been amazing and so willing to help me when I need them.”
Riddell’s extensive involvement in campus activities, especially the Student Government Association, and her internships with the EKU Office of Regional Stewardship, the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office and the Democratic Caucus for the Kentucky House of Representatives allowed her to meet many students, staff, faculty and professionals, hone her leadership skills and greatly expand her support network.
“My confidence has grown more after every hurdle I had that I didn’t think I could handle, but then I did,” Riddell said. “Now, I feel as though I am very capable of handling whatever situation comes my way, and I feel very prepared to attend graduate school. This self-confidence, I believe, has fed into my growth as a leader. When I got to EKU, I was timid in my pursuit of leadership opportunities. At this point, I feel confident leading other students, and even sometimes faculty.”
A big part of that transformation is her improved interpersonal communication skills.
“While I have always enjoyed debate, I used to sort of blind myself in my beliefs, and not hear out another side of thinking,” she acknowledged. “Today I am much better at keeping my cool, stepping back, and attempting to understand the perspective of those around me.”
Increasingly, because of her many connections, the once-insecure Riddell became a “go-to” person when her classmates had a question about most anything on campus.
That’s the circle of life in the village.