Many of Kentucky State University’s 2012 graduates didn’t travel a straight path on the road to a diploma.
Of 335 degree recipients Friday, 16 earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies through Project Graduate.
The program brings back former KSU students who are within a year or so of completing their course work – like 40-year-old Tammi Norman and 27-year-old Rickey Harris Jr.
“Burned out” with studying, Norman left school 14 years ago with a dream of becoming a singer.
She said she traveled the nation and world as a backup vocalist for gospel, R&B and indie soul artists but always wanted to earn her diploma. She lacked just a semester’s worth of classes.
“I had this desire that was burning in me, and I had to pursue what it was, and that was to sing,” she said of her mindset back then.
“I had to go do it, but when I left school, I always knew that I had a very strong desire to finish my degree. That was very important the whole while, and it’s been 14 years.”
Norman transferred to KSU from rival Central State University in Ohio, the place her family had attended, to pursue a degree in education.
She was active on campus as part of the Concert Choir and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s Beta Zeta chapter. She was named second attendant to Miss KSU in 1998 and won campus talent shows.
“I don’t regret what I did, but I don’t recommend what I did,” she said, with a laugh. “Just finish school, especially when you’re as close as I was.”
Norman moved to Atlanta after leaving KSU to sing and work as a substitute teacher. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she also pursues acting and other work in the entertainment industry.
But last year she decided it was time to head back to Kentucky for the fall semester. She wanted to finish her degree before she turned 40, and her birthday was approaching.
She also wanted to honor her father, the Rev. Clem B. Norman, and brother Torin Champion Norman, who died several years ago.
“I packed my suitcases, I shipped my truck, and I came back to Kentucky State and moved into Young Hall,” she said.
“I moved into Young Hall at age 39, surrounded by and living with a bunch of 20-year-olds – very interesting.”
But Norman said she gets along well with young people, so she bonded with her fellow students, despite being “seriously old” for dorm life. (Even the dorm director was 10 years her junior, she said.)
Her studies were totally different the second time around too. She said she spoke up more in class, buckled down with her homework and in general was more focused, landing her on the Dean’s List.
Now Norman is thinking about grad school, and she said part of her would love to work in admissions at Kentucky State University, using her connections with high school teachers in the region to recruit
“We need enrollment at Kentucky State – we need numbers to go up – and I have the charisma and the personality,” she said. “I think I could really get people to come to my school and love it like I do.”
Norman said the family atmosphere, history and tradition make KSU unique. She said the people on campus are sincere and dear to her.
“This is my school – I didn’t want to graduate from anywhere else,” she said emphatically.
“I could have graduated from USC online in LA, but no. I paid my rent on my apartment while I was away, I moved to Kentucky, lived with 20-year-olds and ate in the cafeteria.”
Harris balanced full-time work with school for nine years to graduate Friday. A few hours before the ceremony, he was bracing for tears of joy when he walked across the stage.
Though he now faces thousands in student loans, he said he’s going to rely on his faith and not worry about it. There are better things to come in his life, he said.
“If you’re this far ahead, just keep going and keep pushing yourself,” he said. “Just live for that moment when you get that piece of paper because not everybody can say they have a degree.”
Harris met his wife, Tanesha, at KSU in 2004. She graduated soon after, and the couple maintained a long-distance relationship for a year while Harris continued to take classes at KSU.
But they wanted to be together, so Harris left school in 2005. The couple moved around the country, finally landing in Maryland, where Harris works as a security guard at government buildings.
Harris was working toward his degree through ITT Tech when his wife told him about Project Graduate. He took a year’s worth of classes online to earn his bachelor’s degree.
“I always had to work – I never had time for myself because I had to go to work, and then school, and go back to work and then school again,” he said.
“It’s a special moment because everybody knows I’ve wanted this for so long.”
Harris said it was tough to watch his friends earn college degrees as he struggled to stay in school and work full-time over the years. He and Norman both want people to know it’s never too late to head back to class.
“My grandmother graduated from college when she was 60 years old,” Norman said.
“I don’t care how old you are – you can always come back and finish.”