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As she was growing up in Rockcastle County, school was Kara Canterbury’s “kryptonite.”

And that, she said, is putting it nicely.

Diagnosed with ADHD, she found even sitting at her desk a daunting task. She was constantly staying after school to keep up with assignments until, finally, her mother pulled her out of the local school system for a few years of homeschooling. Then, when she re-entered the public schools, she was held back a grade. She lived for the 3 o’clock bell, when she could race off to sports practice, a club meeting or just hang out with friends.

After graduation, she enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University, but only to prove to her family – several of whom are EKU grads – that college wasn’t for her, that she needed to do something – anything – else.

“I knew I had interests, but nothing really grasped my attention.”

Then, a perceptive professor mentioned the possibility of her working with the families of children who had developmental delays.

“I had no idea what was waiting for me in the … child and family studies program. I simply thought I was going to prove to my family that I tried the first year of college but didn’t need to and couldn’t go back.

“Boy, was I wrong.”

You could say that. Not only has Canterbury excelled academically, she has confirmed her life’s calling to work with young children through a series of international experiences in such diverse settings as Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Haiti, Guatemala, Romania, Ukraine and Russia. The EKU senior who only wanted to prove she didn’t belong in college recently earned one of two College of Health Sciences Dean’s Awards for her high grade point average (3.43), demonstrated leadership qualities and service to the health sciences profession.

“There was never that one defining moment where I thought, ‘College is for me.’ It came very slowly, and it came through my different experiences volunteering. If I seriously wanted to make a difference, I had to find my passion and get a degree so people would take me seriously.”   

All Canterbury knew when she entered the child and family studies program was that she loved children and wanted to “bridge the gap” between failure and success.

“The department wrapped me in its arms by connecting with me on a personal level,” Canterbury said. “Every single professor in the program has gone out of their way, willingly, for me at some point. As I grew to know them better, their investment in me became deeper and deeper. They were constantly pushing me to think about how we can change the world for children and families, how we can make an impact on the lives around us.

“They took a girl who was out to prove she wasn’t ‘smart enough’ for school and gave her a passion to work for. They gave me a purpose in striving to create a better future for children. They put me on a path in life I wouldn’t have found on my own.”

So she has spent much of the last five years circling the globe to help others less fortunate discover their own purpose.

For example, Canterbury took a break from college in Fall 2012 to visit rural villages in Zimbabwe, helping at a local home for sexually abused girls and abandoned babies. While there, she also traveled to Botswana and South Africa to work with other children in orphan care.

“Most people think you go to another country expecting to ‘do good’ and ‘change lives.’ That is very well true but, in a much more real sense, you go and you volunteer because you want to walk alongside others on their journey in life. When I reflect back on different trips, different friends I have made, I don’t see ‘look what I did’ or even ‘look what was done.’ I see how my new friends changed me. My friends receiving the clothing, the meals, the medical care, they showed me what life is truly about.”

More recently and closer to home, her work has encompassed the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and The Center for Courageous Kids, a camp for terminally ill and medically fragile children. While with St. Baldrick’s, Canterbury shaved her head and raised more than $1,500 for life-saving childhood cancer research in less than 24 hours. At the Center for Courageous Kids, she volunteered for many weekend retreats for families and led workshops from crafts to cooking to playroom activities.

In addition to her “supportive” natural and church families, Canterbury explained that EKU’s own “sense of community has helped shape me into someone who believes she can make a difference. Eastern has given me the knowledge and equipped me with the tools to go out into the world and not only ‘work’ but to change the world, even in the smallest ways.”

After graduating May 13, Canterbury will begin her career as a preschool teacher, but plans also to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees with the hopes of someday teaching at EKU, which she calls “absolutely the best university in the nation.

“I have never met so many loving and caring people as I have at Eastern,” she said. “The passion of those who work on campus drives students to be the best and, when you have the best students and are sending them out after graduation, that is when you see positive change in the world.”