Last winter, he shoveled nearly a foot of snow off a student’s driveway in Berea after that student challenged him on Twitter to make it possible for him to attend class the next morning.
On Sunday, May 17, Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson took time to preside at a one-person commencement ceremony, again due to a Twitter request from a student.
It’s hard to say who was more exhausted after the whirlwind of May 15-16: Una Britton, who had just competed for Eastern Kentucky University in the OVC track and field championships, where she topped all competitors in the 10,000-meter final; or Benson, who had presided over or participated in five commencement ceremonies the previous two days.
But, thanks to the thoughtfulness of two of Britton’s teammates, both stood on the stage of the Van Peursem Amphitheatre in the University’s Ravine at noon on Sunday, May 17, for a makeshift private commencement ceremony for Britton, who was unable to be on campus Friday to receive her master’s degree in Exercise and Sport Science.
“Una missed graduation due to OVC,” Julie Mathisen tweeted Benson on Saturday afternoon, “so we are hosting a graduation for her tomorrow, and we need an official speaker.”
After a few more details were exchanged, Benson assured Mathisen he would be there to confer Britton’s degree. With a dozen or so proud teammates and coaches looking on, Benson conferred the degree on the student-athlete from Wicklow, Ireland, who had excelled in track and cross country the past two years at Eastern. He even gave a speech that was “just the right length.”
Britton said she was “really surprised, and appreciative, that President Benson took time to come to my ‘graduation ceremony.’ I thought (the snow-shoveling event) was probably a once-off. I presume President Benson was almost ‘graduated-out’ by Sunday, so for him to come to our impromptu ceremony was extremely nice of him.
“The fact that a president of a university would interact with the students in such a way shows that he is in touch with the student population and really cares about the students and the EKU community,” Britton added. “I was also surprised, and extremely grateful, to the track coaches for coming on a Sunday morning after a hectic OVC weekend.”
Another teammate, Shannon Rutherford, joined Mathisen in arranging the ceremony.
“I had told them how much I missed my undergraduate degree in Ireland because I was starting college here at EKU, and that I would now miss my second graduation,” Britton said. “They decided that they would give me a graduation, and tweeted President Benson, asking would he do the honors. Despite a tiring weekend at OVC, and a late-night return to EKU, the two girls and the rest of the EKU distance team showed up to the Ravine for the celebration.”
Britton was a highly successful competitor in both track and cross country during her two years at Eastern. This past cross country season, she earned first-team all-OVC honors after placing fourth in the OVC championships, helping her EKU team win its eighth conference title in the last nine years. She went on to finish 43rd overall out of 257 runners in the NCAA Southeast Regional. In track, she broke the EKU record in the 10,000 meters with a 35:07.68 at the Drake Relays.
“I have made some of my best friends here at EKU, which makes it really hard to leave,” Britton said. “My teammates might have received a lot of attention this weekend for arranging the graduation ceremony, but they have also been that supportive and brilliant for the whole two years I’ve been here.”
You can learn more about Britton’s private commencement at https://storify.com/EKU/a-special-commencement.