Heather Browning Kates can’t possibly miss the constant reminders of not only her dreams and aspirations, but the long and winding path her young life has already taken.
Along with several Bible verses, a glass angel and some Eastern Kentucky University memorabilia, they surround her computer monitor in the office of EKU’s Master’s of Public Health program, where Kates works as a senior office associate.
“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it,” reads one note. “The time will pass anyway.”
Another note is more to the point: “Quitting is not an option!”
Kates grew up the youngest of six children in what she called “a loving home” in Jackson County and then Berea. Her father worked construction and pastored a small Holiness church; her mother worked at home. She graduated from Madison Southern High School in 2004 and, intimidated by the thought of the big Richmond campus, enrolled at a small for-profit college to pursue an associate degree in accounting.
Discouraged, she quit after a year and joined the workforce, working her way up from teller to assistant manager at a local bank over a six-year span. During that time, she and her husband, Michael, a programmer analyst with the University Training Consortium at EKU, were married.
Kates “made pretty good money,” but something was still missing in her life. She filled the void by joining EKU in January 2011 as a senior account clerk in the Student Accounting Office and, with the promise of an employee tuition waiver, began making plans to resume her college education that fall. This time she would pursue an associate degree in general studies entirely through EKU Online.
Little did she know then what trials awaited her and her family.
Just a week before classes were to start in August, her father, who had no known major health issues at age 68, sat down in a church pew after preaching and suffered a fatal heart attack. “His body was just worn down,” Kates said. “I wanted a better future for me and my family.”
Their patriarch’s sudden passing was “very hard on my family for a while,” added Kates, who decided to delay her EKU studies until spring semester. That plan, too, went awry when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012.
Kates assumed caregiver responsibilities, driving her mother to her medical appointments, grocery, pharmacy and other destinations.
Her life took a positive turn later the following year, when in July 2013 she and Michael welcomed a baby boy, Caleb, into their family. Caleb’s arrival only steeled Kates’ resolve to begin her Eastern Experience.
“I thought I have to do this,” she said. “So, at age 28, I signed up, determined I was going to make my son and myself proud.”
The ability to earn the degree entirely online made it all possible. Many evenings found Kates, with baby on lap, viewing a lecture on her home computer, or waiting until Caleb was asleep to begin her studies. Her mother-in-law kept the child on weekdays while both parents worked.
Now, with graduation in December 2016 finally just a few months away, Kates “almost cried” when she went online recently to order her regalia. Although an older sister has since earned a degree, Kates will be the first in her family to cross a college commencement stage.
“I had thought that I wouldn’t walk for it,” she acknowledged. “To some, an associate degree is like a high school diploma. But I earned it. It was a long time coming, and it didn’t come easy.”
Though she acknowledged she might also have to fight back tears, she’s looking forward to an opportunity to take a commencement selfie with EKU President Michael Benson.
Kates knows her walk across the stage will also be a memorable moment for her mother, who is now cancer-free. “And I feel like my dad would be proud.”
Caleb, just 3, probably won’t remember too much from the ceremony. But Kates hopes he will someday follow her example, “reminding myself I’m doing it for him and for us as a family.”
Another note on Kates’ desk reads: “Humbled by the small size of my problems and the BIG size of my blessings.”
One of those blessings has been the employee tuition waiver, which has covered the entire cost of her degree program and without which she “couldn’t have afforded to go to school. It has meant more to me than anyone could know. I just really appreciate being an employee of EKU.”
Another, she said, has been her supervisor, Dr. Sheila Pressley, interim director of the University’s MPH program and associate dean of the College of Health Sciences. “I’m not sure I could find a better boss. She has been so supportive working with my schedule.”
Kates also termed her academic adviser, Lindsay Greenwell, “a treasure” and “one person I could always call if I had questions.”
The associate degree is “only a small stepping stone” for Kates. Now 31, she plans to pursue a bachelor’s of general studies degree, with a professional track in public administration, again all online and free with her employee tuition waiver.
“I hope it leads to something on campus,” she said, “maybe something working with students. I’d love to stay here. I love EKU, who we are, the atmosphere.”
The degree will likely take her three years, but “I’m just going to take one day at a time. The past three years have gone by so fast.”
Just like one of those sticky notes promised.