Honors student and Chicago native Cornelia Lewis has worked her way through many obstacles with grit and determination. Her early inspiration came from her father who after retiring from the military, decided to go to college. Her father-in-law also encouraged her to: push herself, do more, and go beyond expectations. In fact, she comes from a long line of people who were driven to achieve against impossible odds. She in turn has passed down that "desire to succeed at what you love" to her children.
with Cornelia Lewis
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO COME TO EKU?
I came to EKU in 2004 to be in the honors program but was not able to finish. My husband was a contractor in Iraq. In the thick of juggling school, home, and children, I got a call from the State Department. My husband was missing. The work and stress became too much and I decided to withdraw from school. Shortly after, my husband was found; but, it would be 10 years before I would have another opportunity.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO RETURN TO EKU AFTER TEN YEARS?
I couldn’t swing it financially but I found out that Americorp had an educational stipend. I worked for two years building houses for Habitat for Humanity to get the stipend. With that and an honors merit scholarship, a book scholarship and student loans, I was able to come back.
I’m not your last student and neither is my son. There are many more to come.
WHAT HAS THE HONORS PROGRAM MEANT TO YOU?
The Honors Program faculty encourage me to be my best. They challenge me. I want them to be proud of me. For example, I went to Dr. Mina Yazdani in the history department. She helped me to put my ideas into a larger context. She suggested alternative learning strategies. She could have let me just struggle; but, that wasn’t enough for her.
HAVE YOU HAD UNEXPECTED BENEFITS FROM RETURNING TO EKU?
Yes, my son was inspired to go to college because of my own efforts. He wanted to pursue an aviation degree at EKU. I had no idea how we could make that happen. He told me, we will find a way – and we did.
My son was offered a scholarship to help with his books. Someone cared enough to say, “You know what, I know what it is like to struggle. I want to offer something to help a student who has that drive to learn.”
An EKU donor provided something for my son that I couldn’t give him. That person has no idea what that donation meant to two people – one in aviation; the other in the Honors Program. It is hard to express how grateful I am. Something they did made a monumental difference in our lives, forever.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SEE YOUR SON REALIZING HIS DREAMS?
As I watch my son, his determination and excitement, I recall my grandfather who had to go to Mexico to get his pilot’s license because he was a black man. When he came back to the USA, he wanted to join the military as an aviator but was not accepted because of his color. So, he went to England and flew with the RAF.
A different time, a different place…and my son has new opportunities and joys while he pursues the career he loves.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE THINKING ABOUT APPLYING TO EKU?
If you try, you are going to be better off than you were when you began. EKU faculty and staff will help you. There are people who donate for the sheer purpose of helping to elevate your life. You won’t know what is available unless you step into the admissions office and try. Wouldn’t it be lovely to get a letter saying: “you have been admitted to Eastern Kentucky University. You are about to start a new journey.”
WHY DOES IT MEAN SO MUCH TO YOU TO GRADUATE?
The reason it is important for me to graduate has nothing to do with me. It is about my children and the world we live in.
I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact on the world. I want my children and grandchildren to live on a sustainable planet. I care about air quality and soil quality … I want to be innovative and apply the concepts I’ve learned to the whole world.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO AFTER GRADUATION?
I want to go to underdeveloped countries and figure out how to improve their systems. When I’m sitting in my rocking chair, I want to be able to say, “This place is better because of me.”
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAY TO EKU DONORS?
You know, it may seem like at the time that the money you give is trivial and you might think you won’t see the end result. But, come on by the university, walk around and see the students. I would never have walked on to this campus if someone hadn’t said, “you have a scholarship now and we will help you come up with the rest of the money.” I’m not your last student and neither is my son. There are many more to come.