April 25, 2018

CARTERVILLE — Donavan Nalley’s journey to John A. Logan College started underground. Now he’s flying high.

Nalley grew up in the tiny Franklin County town of Akin. Locals remember the 1984 Akin Grade School Bulldogs who won the state basketball championship. Nalley was a part of that team.

Academically, Nalley admits, he only did enough to stay eligible to play sports — even when he went to Benton High School — where he graduated in 1989.

After high school, he went to work for the tire plant in Mt. Vernon. He then worked a number of jobs before going to work for the coal mine in Galatia.

Three years ago, he explained, he was hurt in the mines. He had a decision to make, the 47-year-old thought to himself: “Sit at home or do something different with my life.”

He decided to enroll at John A. Logan College.

“On the first day of school, I remember standing out by the clock tower with a back pack on my back and I was thinking, ‘what in the world am I doing here,’ It was the scariest moment of my life.”

But time does tell all. And in time, Nalley realized he had made the right decision, a decision that has changed his life forever.

“I’m in my forties, I didn’t do well in high school, I was working in the coal mines, and, now, here I am sitting in college classes,” Nalley said. “Imagine how I felt. I didn’t know if I would fit in. I didn’t know if I could keep up with the classes. I had no idea what to expect.”

On Friday, May 11, Nalley graduates with an associates in science degree. He has a 3.85 grade point average. He is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and he just received news that he has been awarded two major scholarships to attend the University of Arizona.

“I did it,” he smiled. “I did what I actually thought might be impossible.”

But what made it possible, Nalley is quick to point out, are instructors at John A. Logan College “who know how to teach. They don’t just present the material, they teach it, they teach you how to learn. When they are done teaching, you get it. You get the lesson, you get the information. You get an education.”

Nalley noted that after the first semester, he had straight-A’s. He was so encouraged that he worked even harder. “When you are my age and you know you didn’t do well in high school, all of the sudden, when you are doing well in college, it hits you, ‘hey, I can learn. Why did I wait so long?’”

He said he was especially encouraged by Donna Ford, the College’s biology instructor who has been recognized as the College’s 2018 Faculty Member of the Year.

“She (Ford) really pushed me,” Nalley said. “She put me in a good spot, helping me believe that I can do all of this.”

Nalley said he doesn’t have a perfect grade point average because, admittedly, “I had a little trouble with chemistry and calculus, but just a little.”

This summer, Nalley is moving to Tucson where he is going to study geoscience at the University of Arizona. “I received the university’s academic achievement award and the Phi Theta Kappa scholarship,” he said.

How did this happen? “John A. Logan College has amazing people,” Nalley said. “I never, never dreamed I’d do this, that I would make it as far as I have. But my instructors and others at the College just kept encouraging me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

That encouragement allows Nalley to walk in Logan’s graduation ceremony.

“I can’t believe it, that’s going to be me graduating,” Nalley said. “I’ll have on a cap and gown and I am going to receive a diploma.”

As he looks back, Nalley said, he realized soon after high school just how important getting a college education is. “Doors were opening for people who had a college education,” Nalley said. “I could see just how important higher education is.”

But would he of done it if he hadn’t been injured in the mine?

“Life has a way of motivating you,” Nalley said. “If I hadn’t been hurt, I’d probably still be in the mine. But John A. Logan College took an old rock kicker from the coal mines and turned me into a student who is attending a tier one university geology program. Now how do you like that?”