Military Service Leads To Courage For Education
Steven Kennedy grew up in McDowell County. A lot of his family made a living working in the mines, even his father, but his dad discouraged him from going into the industry.
“He's like, ‘don't break your back.’ Do something that you enjoy,’” he said. “I can tell that he really regrets not going to college.”
Kennedy heeded his father's advice. He didn't go into the mines, but he didn't go to college either.
“I did not feel like I was smart enough to go to college and nor did I know what I wanted to do or anything,” Kennedy said. “So the military, that was my choice.”
It wasn't an easy choice but one Kennedy came to after looking for work in North Carolina, and coming up short-handed felt his options were limited.
“Your options are drive a truck, work in the coal mines or go in the military,” Kennedy said. The military was probably the best thing I could have done.”
Kennedy joined the U.S. Army in 2012. While serving four years of active duty and three years in reserves, Kennedy found camaraderie, discipline and eventually a path to an education as his father encouraged.
It turns out, he was smart enough for college. He earned a degree from Concord University in 2018, and is now pursuing a master's of health promotion while working full time at the university.
Another veteran, George Williams, is originally from Wilmington, North Carolina.
He served in the U.S. Navy for nine years and remembers similar thoughts before joining the military.
“You know, I was never a good student in high school,” Williams said. “I was kind of getting into a little bit of trouble, nothing major, but little things here and there. And I just decided that I didn't want to go to school. That didn't feel like working a real job. So I followed in my brother's footsteps and joined the Navy.”
Williams said he enjoyed his time on active duty, but found himself away from home a lot. He missed his family. So he and his wife ventured on a road trip looking for a new life. They found it in Mercer County.
“My wife liked it. She liked the mountains, and she said, ‘Hey, let's stay here for a few nights.’ A few nights turned into a few days and a few days into a few weeks,” Williams said.
They both got jobs at Walmart, Williams worked at the auto shop changing oil and tires.
“It's not a bad job,” Williams said. “It's just boring. I said, ‘I think I'm gonna go to school,’ and she said, ‘You're crazy.’”
That ‘crazy’ idea ended up making sense. He enrolled at Concord University.
“I just absolutely loved it,” Williams said. “I'd never been a student before. I was 40 years-old at the time and for some reason going back to school was just the right fit for me.”
Such a good fit, in fact that Williams eventually earned his doctoral degree and is now an assistant professor of English.
He's also the university's veterans advocate, helping other veterans as they venture into higher education. Williams has also created an entry level college course tailored to veterans.
He said it's a way to continue to serve as a civilian in his newfound home of West Virginia.