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Picking any path after high school requires taking a leap of faith. For Nichol Ripley, the decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy felt more like “bungee jumping off the Grand Canyon.”

However, that first big leap ultimately lead Ripley to a life of personal success. Today, she is a proud veteran; a wife and mother of three; a proprietor of a Cynthiana, Kentucky, goat farm; and, as of Dec. 13, a graduate of EKU’s Agriculture program. 

Ripley, who plans to pursue a doctorate in veterinary science, was selected to deliver the student address for EKU’s College of Business and Technology. She shared the story of three big leaps in her life — the decision to enlist, the decision to start a farm, and the decision to enroll at EKU. Each was filled with uncertainty, and opportunity. 

“You can't see the size of the cliff before you jump, but from someone who has leaped into the abyss, seen the best and worst of humanity and came out alive and well, it's worth it every single time,” she said.

After basic training, her first assignment in the Navy was aboard the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. She arrived on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ripley recalled the adrenaline that took hold as the alarm sounded and crew were ordered to battle stations. 

“Everyone jumped into action. We knew we were under attack in some form, but we didn't know if it was right outside of the skin of the ship or at home,” Ripley said. “In those moments, there were only three things I knew with 100-percent certainty: I had been in the Navy for a whopping 2 ½ months, I was 17 years old and I was scared.”

Later in her career she transferred to the U.S. Naval Reserve Center in Louisville, where she met her husband. They “fell in love with Kentucky” and decided to make it their home. As her 16-year military career came to an end, the couple prepared for their next big leap — starting their own Kentucky farm. Neither had experience in agriculture. 

“To put this into perspective more, here's the full extent of our agriculture knowledge when we made this decision. I was from eastern Ohio and I lived in the country. I had seen a cow before. My husband was a fan of the Indianapolis Colts,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “So yes, we were crazy, but at the same time it made perfect sense for us.”

Then came the next big decision. Ripley had always known she wanted to earn her degree. The question was, from where? 

“Which college would I feel comfortable at, since I had a daughter that was starting college herself? What college would there be other veterans at for the support that only we can provide each other?” she said. “I would need one-on-one time and a place that I would receive hands-on training because, as I mentioned before, I was a little green when it came to agriculture.”

EKU and its lauded agriculture program met all Ripley’s requirements. Each class “was meaningful and led to more complex and intricate skill sets,” she said. She praised the support from professors, including one who helped her save the lives of three baby goats who had a difficult birth.

“They are alive and healthy today because of the education and support that I received at EKU. I'm sure that many other graduates can share similar stories to that moment. They knew that when they took the leap to go to EKU, it was the right one,” she said. “Graduates, today we stand triumphant together with one goal obtained. Now, what's the next leap that you're going to take? Graduate school, post doc, military service, working?

“Whatever it is, please take it. Jump in with both feet.”

Watch the full speech below: