Whitney Rice, one of two recipients of the Dean’s Award of Merit for the College of Health Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University, “didn’t really have a plan” four years ago.
Growing up in London, Kentucky, Rice knew she wanted to work in parks and recreation. She reaffirmed that desire when she worked as a recreation technician for the U.S. Forest Service during high school, doing trail and campground maintenance. Unfortunately, she had no clue how to break into the field.
After graduating from South Laurel High School in 2014, Rice first planned to attend the University of the Cumberlands and major in education or biology. She hoped one of those degrees would equip her to teach environmental education in a camp setting. A quick Google search by her mother, however, completely changed her course.
Through that search, Rice’s mom found the EKU Department of Recreation and Park Administration, a program seemingly tailored to Rice’s lifelong dreams. “I knew that there was no better place for me to be than in that program,” she said.
Rice chose two words to describe her journey at EKU: fear and faith. “Everything about my first year … scared me,” she confessed. “I was quiet, nervous and I didn't have any friends. I came from a smaller town and left all my friends, family and boyfriend at the time behind to get this education.” Instead of embracing the opportunity for a new start, she found herself “terrified to try new things, let go of my home and where I came from, and meet new people. All of it caused me to live in fear.”
It was only when Rice began to lean on her Christian faith that she found herself adapting to college life and spending fewer weekends back home. “I found my faith had made me stronger,” she said. “The fears were still there, but I was able to physically see what I had overcome and who I was turning into.”
Rice found herself becoming a more social, confident person. After growing up with most of the same classmates for 18 years, having to make friends was a new and intimidating experience. “My freshman year was an adjustment, but I just kept waking up, going to class, mingling in new groups … and eventually I had a core group of friends that I spent the majority of my time with,” she recalled. She is confident that growth will give her an advantage in a career she loves. “In the public service sector understanding people, how they function and your role in their lives is the most rewarding and perhaps the hardest to learn.”
During her time at EKU, Rice also accumulated an impressive number of volunteer hours. “I first started volunteering to keep busy,” she said. She volunteered with university events, church organizations and community agencies, such as Richmond Parks and Recreation and Bellevue Alternative School. “I realized that volunteering brought me closer and tied me to the Richmond community,” she reflected. “I developed relationships with different people and organizations that would come to play an instrumental part of my life, even to this day.”
Rice also poured herself into her studies and became active in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration. She worked asan office assistant for the department and served as vice president of the EKU Recreation Club.
Her sophomore year, Rice even expanded her studies by exploring an additional passion. Growing up, she was heavily involved in the Future Farmers of America (FFA). The university’s involvement with the state and regional FFA chapters afforded her the chance to watch a regional competition. After that event, she decided to declare a minor in agriculture. “I knew I couldn’t go to EKU for four years and not have a touch of Ag,” she said. “It was just part of who I was and the building blocks that got me here.”
Rice did not transform from timid teenager to confident college graduate all on her own, however. She counts the influence of Dr. Michelle Gerken, associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration, as one of the most impactful. Gerken guided Rice as an instructor, co-worker and personal mentor. “I can’t say enough about this woman,” she said. “She was there to set me straight, encourage me to look to the future, and keep the faith. This university and the RPA department are a better place because of her presence.”
Rice graduated May 11 with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and park administration, with a minor in agriculture. After graduation, she will take her hard-won education to Davie County Recreation and Parks in North Carolina, where she will begin working as its administrative and event coordinator. She couldn’t be happier with where she’s landed: “Fear caused my faith to grow, and now it is my joy to follow the adventure.”
To the incoming students who will follow in her footsteps, Rice advised: “Do things that scare you. Accept change. If it makes you uncomfortable or if it makes you question your own personal strength, try it.” Despite the challenge that path brings, she left her successors with a promise: “It is not easy; there are days that you will hurt, but it is worth it!”
— by Madison Harris, student writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management