Among the 414 degree earners to be honored at Lipscomb University’s December commencement Saturday, Dec.14, are at least three graduates who have beaten the odds to receive their diplomas.
One survived prison to become a local leader in prison ministry, one survived a debilitating brain infection in her junior year at Lipscomb, and one survived a massive stroke that set him on a new life path to a career in dietetics.
These three, and hundreds more, including 22 military veterans and numerous international and first-generation college students, will be honored at the 2 p.m. ceremony in Lipscomb’s Allen Arena on Saturday. The university will award a record number of fall semester degrees.
Among the faces in the crowd Saturday will be Grant Carey, assistant director of the Tennessee Prison Outreach Ministry, who can speak to Tennessee prisoners from firsthand experience. When he was 17, Carey shot a classmate at his Indiana high school and found himself on trial for attempted murder. He was convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“Jail is where my life changed,” said Carey. First he experienced the shooting victim speaking on his behalf at his trial and writing to say he forgave him, and then he was given a copy of the New Testament and encouraged to read it. He learned of forgiveness and wrote a letter to the community expressing his regret for his actions.
Upon release from prison, he attended a Church of Christ-affiliated college and began training as a preacher at a Nashville church. He started a ministry in Sumner County in 2009 and began volunteering at the Tennessee Prison Outreach Ministry. In 2011, a supporter of that ministry provided funds for a scholarship to Lipscomb to earn a Bible degree.
Now Carey “tells the story of forgiveness to all who will hear both in the free world and behind prison walls,” he said. With his new degree from Lipscomb, Carey plans to continue preaching in the prisons and at churches throughout Tennessee to support the outreach ministry.
In addition to having one of the most unique backgrounds of the students who fill Lipscomb’s classrooms, he was probably the only one attending classes at two colleges at the same time. He also earned a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Amridge University in May.
Kayla Pollock, of Johnson City, was three years into her college career at Lipscomb, working to become a teacher, when she developed a brain infection during the summer of her junior year. She was in Hilton Head, S.C., with her family when she began to feel ill, and within days she lost her speech, mobility and cognitive ability. Due to a common cold, her body began attacking her cerebellum, doctors told her family.
She spent two weeks in Vanderbilt University Medical Center in a comatose state and upon recovering, spent a month and a half in rehabilitation in Johnson City.
One day in rehab, Pollock remarked to her mother that she was looking forward to getting back to her studies at Lipscomb in the fall. Her mother told her that was absolutely not going to happen, and Pollock began to cry in despair. Her mother even called in the doctors to explain why starting school again that fall would not be an option.
However, Pollock was determined and she did make it back to school, delaying her degree by only a semester. Her doctors say that her youth allowed her to recover her abilities much faster than other patients. She was “a textbook case” for recovery, she said.
Now Pollock already has a teaching job lined up at Oliver Middle School in Nashville where she was a student teacher.
“Life became a lot more precious,” she said of her experience. “Now I have a lot more empathy, especially with my students. If I have a student with a speech impediment, I can understand what he is going through from firsthand experience.
Kyle Smithson, of Franklin, also suffered a life-changing illness, but it was one of his own making, he confesses. He suffered a massive stroke at age 34. The entire left side of his body was paralyzed.
“It was due to health issues,” he said. “I never went to the doctor, and I was a ticking time bomb. I had every single risk factor: I was inactive except for waiting tables; I had high blood pressure and diabetes; I ate poorly, smoked infrequently and drank too much.”
Smithson didn’t just change his eating habits after recovering from his near-death experience -- he changed his whole life. He cut out all the vices, began eating well, began exercising and two months after his stroke, he got baptized.
It was a long journey. He had to live with his family again for six months after he was released from the hospital. He lost 66 pounds in the first six months after the stroke. He had to do much of his physical therapy on his own, so he joined the YMCA’sdiabetes prevention program. And he went through personal struggles as he tried to figure out what his next career step should be.
After personal reflection, he realized dietetics was his passion. After his internship and licensing work, he hopes to become a sports dietitian or a certified diabetes educator. His next step is to complete Lipscomb’s exercise and nutrition science graduate program.
“I used to be the guy who, when things got tough, I gave up. But that is so far from the truth now,” Smithson said. “I called my stroke coordinator the other day, and she said, ‘You have come so much farther than we ever thought possible.’”