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James Donnelly believes that life is about pursuing your goals and reaching for your dreams – even if it takes 37 years.

Donnelly, a 54-year-old Dayton, Ohio, resident, began pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Eastern Kentucky University in 1979, left in 1981, then returned and completed his degree in 2016.  “I wanted to finish something that I already started,” he said.

Struggling financially in 1981, Donnelly postponed completing his degree just to survive.

“I paused to save some money, because I was starving back in 1981,” he said. “I ended up not being able to return for a long time.” But he never gave up on the dream that he would one day finish.

Later in life, Donnelly found his lack of a degree was holding him back from his career goals so he decided to finally return and finish what he started. “I was denied opportunities to advance to better positions due to not having a bachelor’s degree. So, I returned to fulfill that milestone,” he said. He is now an IT support analyst for Wilmer Hale, LLC, one of the largest law firms in the country.

Upon his return, Donnelly only needed 18 upper-level hours to complete a degree in general studies.  He completed them through EKU’s online course offerings, an option that didn’t exist when he first attended. Now he is considering graduate school to take his career ambitions even further.

Donnelly remembers a slightly different campus than the one younger students know now. “Several buildings have come down and new ones have risen since then,” Donnelly said. “The Whitlock Building (where most student success offices are housed) stands where my old dorm, O’Donnell Hall, once stood.” 

Even though Donnelly no longer lives on or regularly visits the campus, he has fond memories from when he did as a young man. “My favorite memories from back then were time spent with friends in The Powell Building and the Ravine. I also loved attending football games (Eastern won national I-AA titles in 1979 and 1982). My recent memories are about the kindness experienced through the administrative staff and instructors who helped me through completion of my degree.”

Because Donnelly has much more life experience than most students who graduated in 2016, he offered some post-graduation advice: “Pursue your own dreams and do what you love.  Life is about fulfilling your own aspirations and finding your own happiness. It’s not about fulfilling the expectations of others,” he said. As for others his age contemplating a return to college: “Don’t be afraid to learn to be a student again. Go after the degree for yourself.”

EKU offers a “one-stop shop” for adult learners via the Student Outreach and Transition Office.

“Adults who are interested in starting college for the first time or completing a degree they began long ago will find friendly encouraging staff who really go the extra mile to answer questions and address concerns,” said Lisa Cox, director of the Student Outreach and Transition Office and Project Graduate liaison for the University.

“We have several degree completion options for those who possess previous college credits,” Cox added. “Returning adults are often surprised at just how close they are to a degree. Our team works hard to maximize the how your previously earned credit can be applied toward a degree. We answer basic questions about applying for financial aid and academic bankruptcy for those who may have had some hiccups when they last attended school.”

Embarrassed or ashamed of past performance? Don’t be, Cox urged. “Our adult learners often surprise themselves at how competent they can be at studies. Adults and their life experiences add richness to the learning of others, bringing insights and broader perspectives to the discussions.”

For more information, visit, email or call 859-622-7686.