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Eastern Kentucky University is full of students who are breaking away from something to create a brighter future for themselves, and Dr. Gill Hunter refuses to let them slip through the cracks.

“We aren’t faithful to our mission,” Hunter stressed, “if we don’t commit to educating every student we enroll.”

Every Wednesday morning this summer in the John Grant Crabbe Main Library, dedicated faculty meet to participate in a vital and innovative form of professional development. Led by Hunter, they are reading and discussing the book “Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-secondary Success with At-risk Students,” by bestselling author Dr. Karen Gross. They were able to take their learning a step further on July 11, when they hosted the author via a Zoom teleconference.

Gross is a nationally-recognized leader in the field of education who coined the term “breakaway learner” in her book. She described breakaway learners as “non-traditional and often marginalized students whom our K-20 system wasn’t designed to support.” The students she describes come from different backgrounds, but face barriers common to a college education such as poor high school education, family problems, chronic stress or trauma.

When Hunter, the executive director of retention and graduation at EKU, first read the book in Fall 2017, he saw Eastern students “on every page. I decided that if I want to proactively address the retention needs of breakaway students, then I needed to get many people on campus to read this book and talk about applying ideas from it to EKU,” he said.

The faculty and staff who have attended the meetings have come away enlightened. “This book has helped me understand many of the challenges our students face on a daily basis and tools to help them negotiate these challenges in a positive way,” said Dr. Joseph Carucci, professor of music, who, according to Hunter, hasn’t missed a meeting all summer. “Each student has a unique background and set of needs, and deserves our individual attention.”

Jillian Faith, assistant director of programming and recruitment at EKU, appreciated what the meetings say about the campus community. “The book club was a great reminder that we have committed faculty and staff all over campus who are willing to invest in students and help them ‘break away’ however they see fit.”

Prior to the teleconference, the group had sent Gross questions from their reading to inform their discussion. “She has a lot of strong opinions, a lot of rich experiences, and a heart for students,” Hunter said of Gross. With kind eyes behind red-rimmed glasses, Gross invited the professors and administrators to engage with her in interactive exercises and relevant discussion, challenging the way they think about students. “Nobody comes in (to class) with a blank slate, and nobody parks their baggage at the door. No one does,” she emphasized. “The question is, how big is the baggage?”

When Hunter and the group conference with Gross again on August 11, they will focus on practical ways to help students carry that baggage in their classrooms and on campus. Facilitating change on both a large and small scale has been a primary goal of Hunter’s since the sessions began. “For each student, both the struggle and the goal is unique and totally personal,” he said. “We have to be prepared to implement wide-scale changes where necessary while always being ready to respond to individual needs.”

In Faith’s experience, EKU is full of breakaway learners. “So many of our students have experienced life lessons well beyond their years and have overcome obstacles that most faculty and staff would never dream about,” she said.

Within that adversity, however, Hunter sees a certain beauty: “(These students) are not just trying to break away from a past that might threaten to hold them down, but they’re also trying to break into a promising future. That is exactly what we want for them, too.”

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