When senior aviation major Kristena Cook reflects on her daily life, a 100-mile commute each way from her Louisville home to class at Eastern Kentucky University while juggling her children, education and career amid constant exhaustion, she can only be grateful.
“Statistically speaking, this should not be my life,” she said. “I should be locked up, committed to an asylum, strung out on drugs and alcohol or dead.”
Despite those odds, the single mother of two is excelling at EKU, even earning a Summer Scholarship. Cook recalled growing up in a single-parent home where she was not challenged to get an education and found herself struggling with substance abuse. Instead of graduating from high school, she earned her GED in 2003. Shortly after that, Cook’s battle with addiction came to a climax. With college on the horizon and a daughter on the way, she decided to get sober.
“I've been in recovery over 13 years, and I know my past has made me the woman I am today: a woman of integrity and dignity,” she said. “I can walk around with my head held high and proud of overcoming the vicissitudes of addiction.”
Cook enrolled in Jefferson Community and Technical College, where she found herself too distracted to succeed. “The first two years of college my transcript read bankrupt,” she confessed. “I couldn't function or take it seriously because I paid attention only to how I will spend my dividend.” However, after the end of her six-year marriage in 2014, she knew she would need an education to secure her family’s future. She re-enrolled in JCTC that same year, determined to apply herself this time. She graduated two years later, making the Dean’s List every semester.
From there, Cook continued on to EKU, where she is working toward a bachelor’s degree in aviation with a double concentration in aerospace management and professional flight. “What I have set myself up for is an opportunity to succeed through higher education,” she said. “Eastern Kentucky University made that happen for me, because there are no other accredited colleges in the state that offer an aviation degree.”
Cook fell in love with flying after beginning work as a gate agent at the Louisville International Airport in 2015. Her work, which has allowed her to support her family and travel the world for free, has strengthened her passion for her field. “It really puts me on fire about getting this degree,” she said.
Cook’s professional goals are simple: “I want to fly airplanes.” Her ultimate goal is to retire from UPS or Hawaiian Airlines as a captain. She also wants other female and African-American aviation professionals to enjoy the same opportunities. That is why she boasts membership and extensive volunteer hours with organizations such as The 99s, Women in Aviation International and Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).
This summer, Cook’s own daughter will benefit from her mother’s OBAP affiliation, attending a week-long OBAP aviation camp at Shawnee High School in Louisville, where her mother will volunteer. “My daughter will be exposed to mentorship by professionals in the field,” she said. “They will teach them the basics of aerodynamics. Hopefully she’ll get to fly as well.” Cook is just as excited as her daughter. “This is my first time attending so I feel like a kid all over again being able to go myself.”
Although Cook’s future looks bright, she is the first to admit her struggles. “Heading into my fifth consecutive semester at EKU, I will not lie and say my commute is anything close to easy.” She often leaves her house at 6 a.m. to get to class on time, securing childcare to ensure her children get on the school bus. For helping her manage such a hectic schedule, she credits her mother, who often helps take care of the kids.
Cook is also grateful to the new EKU Summer Scholars program for helping her afford the summer classes she needed to graduate on time. “It definitely relieved a lot of pressure,” she said. “I pay so much in gas to get here, so getting the notification that I got the scholarship took so much weight off me. So I decided to take an extra class because of the scholarship. It really set me up to take advantage of as much as I could.”
Ultimately, however, Cook’s biggest motivators are her two little girls, ages 8 and 13. Her passion for flying and love for her children, she said, make the three-hour round trip seem like a jaunt around the corner.
“My daughters make it worth the drive,” she said. “They are my number-one fans. I know they want a better life than the one we have now, and I want to do everything in my power to give that to them.”
-- by Madison Harris, student writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management