When he was 18 years old, Trey Lee had it all planned out.
He was about to graduate from high school and attend college. After attending Nashville Tech for two years, he was going to move from Smyrna, Tennessee, down to Auburn, Alabama, to get his degree in construction management.
Little did he know that his journey would conclude more than 30 years later with him jumping into a swimming pool, wearing his cap and gown — and with his construction management degree in hand, courtesy of MTSU’s flexible degree options.
The journey was a winding one. After Nashville Tech, the company where Lee worked offered him a scholarship to Auburn University to finish his degree. In exchange, he’d continue to work for them for at least four more years.
During his last year at Auburn, he and his wife, Kim, married and had a baby. Lee had finished his thesis and lacked only nine hours of classes to graduate.
His young family needed money, however, so his employer told him to keep on working with them and finish his degree via correspondence — similar to today’s online education process, but back in the 1980s, it was all done via mail.
“I was going to eventually get those nine hours, but life took over,” Lee said. “I got the majority of what I needed and was getting the on-the-job training after that, but I just never went back.”
Don’t need it until you do
Lee said he didn’t feel he was “missing” anything in his career without a degree until about 18 months ago, when his supervisor at the Rutherford County Schools announced his retirement.
To be considered for the school system’s assistant superintendent for engineering and construction, applicants must have a college degree. Lee was in line for the position, and the school board knew he was more than capable, but they couldn’t hire him unless he finished his degree.
“They told me they’d work with me if I worked with them,” he said, “so they made me the interim assistant superintendent and gave me a year and a half to finish.”
The career advancement was only part of what sent Lee back to school. He had a more personal motivation as well: he’d also promised his wife and his mother that he was going to finish his degree.
It was a promise he intended to keep.
Lee contacted Auburn, where officials told him he only had to re-enroll. He was optimistic he’d be able to knock out those three three-hour classes quickly.
Someone within that department, however, recommended he take two additional classes, since he’d not been to college in more than 30 years.
To make matters even more complicated, those two extra classes weren’t offered online. He’d have to take them on the Auburn University campus, five hours and more than 300 miles away.
As a Middle Tennessee native with a full-time career in construction, Lee was familiar with the university’s success in the concrete and construction management industry, but he was unsure how accommodating MTSU would be to someone who hadn’t been in a university classroom in decades.
He’s also familiar with MTSU because his youngest daughter is a Blue Raider graduate, still active with her sorority; his son-in-law has a degree from MTSU, too. Lee said his daughter offered to show him around campus and tell him where not to park if he got lost.
MTSU faculty, staff pave the way
He met with Dr. Thomas Gormley, an assistant professor in the School of Concrete and Construction Management, who told him they’d do anything they had to do to help him finish his degree on time and at MTSU.
Dr. Heather Brown, director of the School of Concrete and Construction Management, worked alongside Gormley to figure out the best path forward for Lee. They saw that he’d need more than those elusive nine credit hours, but they were determined to make sure he met his new job-requirement deadline.
“Of course you want to work with a guy like that, because he was so dedicated, and he knows construction,” Brown said.
She added that they hope Lee will be an active alumnus and continue to support the program.
“I’ve told everyone that I’ve talked to that MTSU, and the people I met, could have not been any nicer. They worked with me, and they got creative to make this happen,” Lee said.
Brown and Gormley even invited Lee to speak to their classes on numerous occasions because of his extensive work experience.
Because of his background — Lee taught in a carpenter’s apprenticeship program in Nashville for 10 years — and his willingness to speak to classes, he was able to quickly take care of some of his graduation requirements.
Both Lee and his wife said, however, that without Jennifer Danylo, his MTSU adviser, he wouldn’t have graduated in the summer 2019 commencement this August.
Danylo jokingly said she’d never advised a student older than she is, but she realized how motivated Lee was and knew he could test out of some classes, too.
“She helped him so much and guided him in the appropriate direction,” Kim Lee said, choking up as she spoke.
“On the first day we met, (Danylo) asked me what my goal was, and we stayed focused on that every time we met,” her husband recalled. “She did things for me that most students she deals with probably don’t ask for or need, but she was extremely supportive.
“I felt like all of them over there took a little extra time with me. There was never a question I asked that they were not there to answer or guide me to where I needed to go.”
“Trey couldn’t have been a more engaged student to work with,” Danylo said, echoing Brown’s comments. “He came by every semester for advising, stayed on top of his timeline to completion, and knocked it out of the park!”
‘It takes some self-motivation’
Lee said he plans to return to MTSU this semester and speak to more classes, and he hopes his interactions with the professors and students open a door for some collaboration between the county and MTSU’s construction management program.
“Trey has so much to give back — to his family, to MTSU and to Murfreesboro,” Danylo said. “It’s fantastic that we will be able to keep someone like him connected to our students and program through guest lectures, internship opportunities with Rutherford County Schools, etc. He couldn’t be a better model for what MTSU exemplifies with student success.”
A self-proclaimed history buff, Lee’s successful test scores earned him credit for two history classes. That’s something his wife said she knew he could do, but she acknowledged that he still worked hard to accomplish that goal.
In fact, when the couple went on vacation to Florida, Kim joked that she grew a little tired of looking at the back cover of his textbook, because Trey’s face was buried in it for the whole flight down.
“It takes some self-motivation,” Trey Lee said. “I did have that work incentive, but I also had that promise I made to my wife and mother. And some of it was ‘I’m this close; I am going to finish this.'”
“It was important to him, so it was important to me,” his wife added. “Our parents are aging, and we try to make it a point to go see them on the weekend. So we’d be over there, and on Sunday night, I’d always tell him it was time to go home, because he needed to study.”
“We always told our children to finish what they started, whether it was a sport or a club or whatever,” she continued. “I knew it was important to him to show our children that he lives what he had preached to them.”
Lee had to finish nearly 30 hours of classes in three semesters. That may not be a huge course load for a full-time student, but Lee said managing his time was key to reach his goal.
Balancing his responsibilities at home and at work on top of his online schoolwork was a bit tough in the beginning, he admitted, but he said he just had to commit to the process.
“If I did not have a board meeting at night or a commissioner meeting, I was studying. If I got home at eight o’clock and had a half-hour or so, I was studying.”
‘I finished what I started’
When it was time to graduate, Trey and Kim knew they had to get creative. Trey’s mother has Parkinson’s disease and is 80 percent blind, making a trip to campus difficult and seeing her son cross the Murphy Center stage even more challenging.
HIs graduation also happened to be on the same weekend as the Lees’ annual family reunion, and he didn’t want to pull family members away to attend the MTSU ceremony.
Since the family would already be together, the Lees decided to give Trey his own graduation ceremony in his aunt’s backyard. He would perform the ceremonial walk at the reunion, and the entire family could participate.
An arrangement of Lee family members who graduated from MTSU created a makeshift receiving line, and Trey’s diploma cover was his daughter’s. They even played “Pomp and Circumstance” on a stereo to complete the “ceremony.”
“I was able to explain to all the kids at the pool what I was doing,” he said. “I told them I didn’t get my degree as soon as I finished high school like their parents had, and I was just now getting mine. They thought that was kind of neat.”
Instead of throwing his mortarboard in the air when they were done, Trey jumped into the pool with the rest of his family while still wearing his cap and gown.
“I think my mother was very proud, not only that I finished, but she was able to see the culmination of it all. And that made me proud,” he said.
“I know she was proud,” his wife added, “because she kept telling us how happy she was and how great it was that everyone was there.”
With his new degree, Trey Lee is the newest member of his family who can call themselves “True Blue.”
“I can go back and learn; I have proved that to myself if nothing else,” Trey said. “I finished what I started.”
If you’re interested in going back and finishing your degree, MTSU is ready to help. Take the first step and visit MTSU.edu/FinishNow to get started.
— Hunter Patterson (Hunter.Patterson@mtsu.edu)