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In 1971, Stanley Howell dropped out of Eastern Kentucky University. In 2017, he completed his doctorate.

What happened in between is a tribute to Howell’s steely determination and to the encouragement he found from the Project Graduate program at EKU.

Through Project Graduate, the then-58-year-old Howell returned to EKU to complete his bachelor’s degree 40 years after starting. Empowered by that accomplishment, he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees.

Howell photoThe Lexington native proved himself curious and intelligent even as a child, with a natural gravitation toward technology. At the age of 12, he recalls building extension telephones from surplus telephone parts and connecting them around the neighborhood with his friends. Maybe that talent is why his father, a carpenter by trade, saved money for Howell’s college education by moonlighting as a TV and radio repairman out of the family’s basement.

That investment brought him to EKU. Howell first enrolled in 1968 as an industrial technology major, with a minor in graphic arts. During the semester he worked at WEKU, and in the summer, at Lexington-Bluegrass Army Depot (LBAD). He had always admired his uncle’s work there and hoped to follow suit after graduation.  

Tragically, Howell’s father passed away that year. The younger Howell left the University in 1971, just a semester shy of graduation, after accepting an offer to work at LBAD as an electronics technician. The job allowed him to stay closer to his mother after his father’s death. After LBAD closed in 1976, Howell continued working for the Department of Defense until his retirement. He held positions in intelligence, engineering and operations analysis for the United States Army, Navy and Air Force.

Howell remained a lifelong learner, taking classes in business, calculus and statistics during the course of his career. But he still felt that something was missing. “I have always felt remiss for not completing my bachelor’s degree even though I had risen through the ranks in my profession,” he said. “I felt after retiring in 2005 that I now had the time to complete my degrees, so I contacted EKU.”

That is when Howell met Lisa Cox, director of the University’s Student Outreach and Transition Office, and learned about Project Graduate, a statewide initiative for students who have earned 80-plus hours at a qualifying Kentucky institution, but left before finishing their degree. Cox compiled Howell’s transcripts from the various universities at which he had taken classes and found that he lacked only a few hours to earn his bachelor’s degree.

“I am so thankful for Project Graduate and Ms. Cox's advice and encouragement to complete my degree,” he said. Lisa’s office maintained thorough communications and followed each course’s progress always reminding me how close I was to finishing. It was very motivating.”

While the technology used on a college campus has changed radically since 1971, Howell said that the experience as a whole felt the same. He fondly recalls his first college experience at EKU. “For me it was a positive emotional experience, like some may describe their first love.” The fires of that fondness never flickered. “I think I embraced the history, traditions and pride instilled by the University staff,” he said. “EKU is in my heart, not just my mind.”

Many years later, his father’s evenings in their basement had paid off. Howell finally crossed the Alumni Coliseum stage to receive his diploma in 2008, with his proud family watching.“Words cannot describe the emotion, thinking of my deceased parents with me along that walk. Graduating gave me peace that, with their meager income, they didn't waste their money for my education.”

Ultimately, Howell did his parents one better: he received his master’s of business administration from DeVry University’s Keller School of Management in 2011, and his Ph.D. in business, management of engineering and technology, from North Central University in 2017.

Now Howell hopes his story will inspire nontraditional students and reinforce the idea that it is never too late to finish. In fact, he is helping others earn their degrees as an adjunct online professor at Tiffin University. “Someone once asked me while attempting my Ph.D. what I’d do after graduating. I said, ‘It is like climbing Mount Everest and, after I reach the top, I’ll help pull others up.’” His ultimate ambition? To do just that as an adjunct faculty member at his beloved alma mater, “to give back to the University for all they have given me.”

— by Madison Harris, Student Writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management