My hometown college saved my ass more than once. 

I never gave much thought about attending Kearney State College when I was in high school. I didn’t really give much thought to my future. That’s at least part of the reason why I decided to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They had an Agriculture College at the University and I sort of fell into the idea that since I didn’t really know what else to do, I would farm. (See 2nd sentence above) Besides, Kearney State was so small, so close to home and what was the prestige in getting a degree from a “state” school anyway? It just didn’t fit into my grand plan (see Farmhouse in this section). To borrow from that post, what a DA.

In the interest of full disclosure I did take summer classes at good old “Kearney State High” as my fraternity brothers derisively referred to it. I picked up at least six hours of general studies classes after my first and second year in Lincoln but I was just putting in my time for the credits. I didn’t appreciate the smaller class sizes (partly because I couldn’t disappear) nor the attendance policy (they expected you in class every day, the nerve!). No, I was just fine with the anonymity I experienced in Lincoln because I wasn’t really there to learn, I just wanted my piece of paper so I could move on to the next thing. After the grand plan fell apart (again, see Farmhouse) I stopped doing summer school because what’s the rush when you have no path, no purpose and no clue (see sentence two, first paragraph once again)? It would be a long time, not necessarily time on the clock mind you, before I would venture back to Kearney State College.

After things fell apart to say I drifted would at best be kind and at worst be understatement. I imagine most life coaches would tell you the worst time to make a decision is when you’re in the midst of the storm. Most military might put it more directly, something about being in the sh*t but there I was. So, I proceeded to go pre-Med and torpedo my GPA which allowed me to lose all my scholarship dollars and of course bail on that idea about three semesters later. Still, I marched forward, often aimless, frequently depressed (although I wouldn’t realize that’s what it was until later) and habitually skipping class to sleep in or just because I couldn’t come up with reason one why I should go. Because I’d crammed so many hours into my first three years graduation was imminent but I still had zero clues which direction I was going. So, I did what all seniors do who don’t have a clue, I opted for a fifth year. I’d decided I wanted to be a writer.

To say my decision was half-baked (not literally for all you CO people) is absolutely, no question, an understatement. I still hadn’t learned much from when I sat in those summer classes in Kearney however. I did this sort of half-assed. Rather than committing to English or Teaching as a major (that would take too long and be too much work after all) I would just pick up a minor and apply to a Writing Program. So, I added “English Minor” to my Agriculture program and embarked on what turned out to be my favorite year in Lincoln. In literature and poetry and writing I had found my home. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for certain. There were some lingering classes to slog through in my agriculture program but I made it through in what was by now my style (do as little as possible, invest the minimum effort and slide by). I took the GRE, doing well in the three general sections, Analytical Writing, Verbal and Quantitative, but bombed the Literature in English subject test (who would have guessed that, I had an English Minor after all) I started applying to programs.

I don’t want to overuse the drug allusion but looking back it’s entirely possible that the people reviewing my applications might actually have thought I was perhaps, stoned. I mean, seriously, who takes an Agriculture degree, slaps an English Minor onto it and then expects to get into a writing program? And, with a GRE result that is at best underwhelming? All I can say is, I really didn’t smoke back then and I was still in full DA mode. Not much of an excuse, I know, but I don’t imagine I have to tell you how successful I was. Oddly enough it would be Kearney State College who would pull me from the (military terminology) after all of this.

By this time I was married, back on the farm as a hired hand and although I didn’t know it, headed toward fatherhood. It was on one nondescript lunch break in the fall of 1989 that I picked up a bulk mail course catalog for Kearney State College that had been tossed on the kitchen table. As I longingly perused the English classes I was surprised to find that Kearney State offered a Master’s Degree in

Education with an emphasis in English. I scanned the catalog and that semester’s graduate level courses and on a whim decided to check into admission. I was surprised when they told me to get my GRE score and fill out an application. Since this wasn’t a writing program I didn’t have to submit a writing sample as I’d done with the other programs and apparently they were either intrigued or amused enough by this Agriculture major, English minor student to offer me a spot beginning in the spring. I was a graduate student!

I charged into graduate school at Kearney State the same way I charged through my summer classes there but a funny thing happened to me right at the starting line of this race; I started showing up eager to learn and being invested in what I was doing. I no longer wanted to be invisible, fact was I worried I talked too much, and I cared about the material. Holy crap! What was this? With professors like Dr. Richard Jussel, Dr. Vern Plambeck and the late Dr. Don Welch (who was my advisor) I realized that when you marry passion with even the tiniest amount of ability things get really, really interesting. Now, I still charged and took far too many hours (especially in the summer) but I was loving every minute of it. The smaller class sizes were anything but a problem because I actually got to know my classmates and they taught me, this agriculture major sort of freakazoid, along with my professors. Attending class wasn’t a chore; I wanted to go. Once again, I’d found home.

Now, I’d like to tell you that my tale has some sort of storybook ending but it doesn’t. Nearing the end of my third semester I applied for a corporate job in the insurance industry. After I applied and started through the interview process I learned through the grapevine that one of my professors had indicated to my mom that I was in line for a graduate assistant position at the college. I was excited but knew that with a new son and a new home the G.A. position would never make ends meet. When they approached me to talk about it I declined. It was a fork in the road and I took the path more traveled but the necessary one. Several years later I would get a call from the English department. Their message: “We’re either going to finish this thing or we’re going to quit on it.” They were, of course, correct and with their guidance I wrote my creative thesis, defended it and received my degree in May of 1998. I will always look back on my time at Kearney State College as some of the richest, most enjoyable and precious years in college.

By the time I graduated it was no longer Kearney State College, the name was now University of Nebraska-Kearney (yes, we word nerds laughed about the UNK acronym). I haven’t been back on campus in years nor sat through a class (again, small classes, can’t really slip in unnoticed) but it’s my hope that some things haven’t changed since Kearney State College became UNK. I hope that the professors still pay attention to who is in their class and who isn’t. I hope that those who took over for Jussel and Plambeck and Welch still talk directly to their students individually and not at them collectively. I hope the students still teach each other things in class and at the vending machines on breaks. Most of all I hope that the passion for the chosen line of study, whether it’s English or Physics or Political Science, is still apparent in the discussion and laughter audible as you walk down those halls.

I’m a believer that if we do it right, life is a constant learning experience. I think college in general and Kearney State College particularly taught me a lot. As adults most of us don’t learn in a classroom anymore. What was the last thing you learned and what were the circumstances?

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