College of Social Work graduate pens op-ed on perseverance as a nontraditional student

This article is an op-ed provided by recent UK CoSW graduate Lakyn Collins. She details the path that brought her from a small town in Eastern Kentucky to finding her dream purpose to help others like herself as nontraditional students. To help provide resources and fight for the rights of Kentuckians that are overlooked.

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My name is Lakyn Collins. I am a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work student who just completed my degree this semester and attended commencement on the evening of May 3. I wanted not only to share my story of what led me to the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) but also to thank the CoSW staff and faculty for the role that they probably were unaware they played.

I am 31 years old, and I am from a small town in Eastern Kentucky. I grew up in extreme poverty within a family built on addiction and abuse. At 14 years old, my mother pulled me out of high school to move me in with her and her boyfriend. She told the board of education that she was homeschooling me, which was not happening. I never stepped foot in high school after my freshman year. When my dad purposely overdosed and committed suicide when I was 17, the principal of my old school reached out to me and offered to help me gain a diploma and graduate on time with my class by completing small packets of work for each subject and him offering one completion grade, which would be the bare minimum to pass me. Now I realize this saved me.

Fast forward years later, I had escaped my family’s cycle of poverty and put myself through beauty school. I am blessed to say that I have traveled the world opening salons as far as Alva, Scotland. However, when I became pregnant, I found myself back in Kentucky working as a cosmetologist and getting the best medical care I could. When COVID-19 hit, I thought my life was over. Turns out, things were just beginning. My salon had closed due to the pandemic, and it left me at home with a premature sick child and no sight of a future or income to support us. When I decided to return to school in January 2022, I was terrified. Afraid of being a nontraditional student, afraid that I was not good enough because I was running on a 9th grade education, and I was afraid of failing. During my first interview with a community college advisor, I was asked a goal for the semester to which I replied, “I just want to finish one class and prove to myself I can do it.” Those words replay in my head now.

I had not decided on a major and I was so burdened by financial struggles that I was doing just what I could and hoping GOD would lead me the rest of the way. I found holes in the welfare system in Kentucky as I tried to navigate getting a job to work through college, but I couldn’t find one that offered me more than the assistance that the state was giving me at that time: food stamps, gas checks, and medical insurance. Throughout my journey at Community College, I met other mothers like me who struggled to find the confidence and resources to help them attend school and better their lives for themselves and for the future of their children. In this midst of learning and living this struggle of mine and other women throughout Kentucky, I have found my passion.

I chose social work so I could be the person that I needed as a child, the support I needed as an adult, and the guidance that so many women like me, need in the process of returning to school. COVID changed the lives of a lot of Kentuckians and financially, the struggle is harder than ever to maintain stability while building a better future. I want to help change that. I hope to use my degree to pursue a macro-level position within the social work field within the Commonwealth to fight for the rights of so many Kentuckians who are often being overlooked. Statistics of women, particularly single women raising children, and attending school are slowly declining, though it is proved daily that college educations lead to better-paying jobs. More than ever, programs are needed to help nontraditional students receive affordable childcare, work that doesn’t hold them back from their priorities with school, and financial assistance that HELPS them to make it while they are pursuing a degree. My dedication to helping these women, my experience with the struggles and my hope to change the system, along with the way its viewed by others, is what I pray makes my voice stand apart from others and helps Kentucky legislation to hear about the barriers that are holding too many citizens back from succeeding.

Now, I believe I am a voice, I am an advocate, and I am the change in the world that we all so desperately look for.

When I met Keith Wynn from the University of Kentucky at a campus transfer fair, I shared my story, my plan, and my passion with him. I did not know then about the online social work program. Keith explained offers and shared with me stories of Lauren Kirk and the social work team and how their kindness, dedication to students and the profession, and drive have helped them to push students to be their best and make the most of the program. I was sold. I never could have dreamed that this same little girl who had aluminum foil over where windows should be in her single-wide trailer, this same little girl who fell through the cracks of the system, could attend a school as prestigious as the University of Kentucky.

After earning a full tuition scholarship through Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society at my community college, my dream of being a Wildcat has come true.

By now, you’re probably wondering where you come into my story. Let me tell you. My experience at the University of Kentucky has changed my life, my views, and my ideas for the future. I now dream of ways I can work in higher education and work with women more personally to help single parents who share my struggle. My son, now four, is special needs, which made my college experience much more challenging. As an online student, there were many times that I’ve felt crunched for time or overwhelmed. The University of Kentucky has truly been my safe place. My professors, my advisor, my recruiter and admissions counselor, my first-generation club, and my classmates have been the backbone I needed to not give up. With their endless support, I have completed 61 credit hours in 14 months with a 4.0. For that, I thank you.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I have no family. It’s just me and my son and I am working diligently to build a safer future for us. My Wildcat family IS my family. You have built a university and program which has offered me kindness, support, stability, friendship and most of all, LOVE. AS LEADERS, you have created a team that not only teaches and guides college students, but they love college students and genuinely want them to succeed. Last night, I walked across the stage with my son and was supported by my friends that I have made along the way within my program. Women I have only shared a virtual relationship with, showed up from all over the country to watch me walk the stage and support me and my child bettering our future. They are my family and THAT is what makes the University of Kentucky home.

I know with online students, it must be complicated to build a bond with them without understanding and seeing them as much as you do your in- person students. I hope this story helps and I hope my undying gratitude leaks through my words. I begin my master’s program in August, and I pray with time, I am able to secure a job at my home, University of Kentucky. Thank you for everything you do, thank you for the team you’ve built and lastly, thank you for allowing me to bring my son along on my walk across the stage.

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For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.