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Five years ago, you could find Kenna Smith, an Eastern Kentucky University custodian, attending class in uniform on her lunch break. Today, she is a full-time student, finishing her bachelor’s degree in recreation and parks administration.

After graduating from Garrard County High School in 2008, Smith “didn’t have the slightest clue” which career path to choose. She ultimately decided to postpone college until 2012. To afford her education, she accepted a full-time custodial position at EKU, which gave her a tuition waiver.

In retrospect, that job afforded Smith much more than just a few free classes. Though she finally felt ready to continue her education, she was still unsure of her career direction. Working in the Begley Building exposed her to the Department of Recreation and Parks Administration.

“After discovering parks and recreation as a career path, I knew that's what I wanted to pursue,” said Smith. She enrolled in 2013, declaring a major in recreation and parks administration and a minor in natural resource management, and hasn’t looked back.

Despite juggling full-time work and part-time school, Smith proved an exemplary student, maintaining a GPA of 3.87 and earning the Blue-Ribbon Award, which recognizes excellence among recreation and parks administration majors. She has also garnered admiration from her professors.

“The courage it took for Kenna to sit in a classroom wearing her EKU custodian uniform is significant,” said department chair Dr. Jon McChesney. “Her attitude during class and in the field has been consistently professional, courteous and characterized by enthusiasm for the profession.”

When EKU contracted maintenance positions to Aramark in 2017, Smith’s education was rerouted, but not defeated. As part of her severance package, she was able to keep her tuition waiver and become a full-time student. The magnitude of that gift is not lost on her: “Not many people can say they graduated college debt free, and EKU gave me that opportunity.”

In fact, Smith’s custodial job was replaced with a paid internship with the U.S. Forest Service. Thanks to a grant from the Forest Service, she has spent roughly 500 hours shadowing back country rangers in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

“It has been a great opportunity to network and learn about federal agencies,” Smith said. Upon graduation, she hopes to work for one of those federal agencies, specifically the National Parks Service or Forest Service. Her biggest dream is to work at Everglades National Park.

Smith could not have known in 2012 how that serendipitous job in the Begley Building would change her life. “Since becoming a student, I have felt inspired to follow my dreams,” she reflected. For that, she thanks her professors. “The faculty in the parks and recreation department have supported and encouraged me from the start of my degree. I cannot thank them enough for the opportunities they have given me.”

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