LLOYD, Ky. - It's been nearly 30 years since James Stephens crossed the stage and received his diploma at Greenup County High School. This year, when he stepped foot on the graduation platform, Stephens did so as the commencement speaker for the 2019 Class of his alma mater.
"I never dreamed this would be an opportunity for me, 29 years after I graduated," said Stephens.
Now a retired Kentucky State Trooper, Stephens serves as coordinator and lecturer of Law Enforcement Technology at Ohio University Southern in Ironton. He's built a career on serving his community and credits the educational foundation he received from the Greenup County Public Schools as helping him get his start.
"I was actually just an average student in most areas, yet placed in honors English, math, and other courses," he said. Stephens described himself as "a typical teenager, worried more about girls and having a good time with friends" than about academics.
The post-high school transition was one Stephens gave little thought to. But, it was the quality of instructors at Greenup County High School that prepared him for college and ultimately his professional life. Although he was "more than prepared academically" for the challenges as a new student at Eastern Kentucky University, Stephens said he wasn't prepared for the independence and responsibility of living away from home.
"This was truly a shock to me and my first semester in college was a disaster," he said.
Stephens' lack of focus on classes was obvious when his first semester grades were posted. That jolt, he said, was his first "true test in what ultimately would determine" his future. Stephens' parents weren't pleased with his poor performance, so he sat out the next semester and worked construction with his father and reapplied for admissions the following fall term.
"Once I returned to college, my focus was on my degree," said Stephens.
The foundational lessons of high school went a long way in helping him push through the setbacks and disappointments in his first college experience.
"There were certain things that could have caused me to feel sorry for myself or feel slighted, but I channeled that negativity into positive motivation, which has become one of my strongest attributes," Stephens explained.
Stephens credits the strong influence of many great teachers at Greenup County, but he said three in particular stand out. "Mrs. Couch, Mrs. Bellew and Mr. Lowder realized my true potential, although it was truly hidden to me."
The teachers encouraged him and treated him "like someone who could accomplish much in life," he recalled. The faith of his teachers and others stayed with Stephens as he worked up through the ranks of the Kentucky State Police.
His focus on a law enforcement career brought unique challenges, including the physical and mental stressors of the State Police Academy.
"I really do not like to run as an activity, but the academy certainly provided many 'opportunities' for such exercise, so I used the mindset of turning negative into positive, which carried me through those tough times," he said.
Stephens ultimately won the overall Physical Fitness Award for his academy class, and finished third in the overall academic rankings for the academy.
His experiences at GCHS are lessons Stephens strives to impart today to his Law Enforcement Technology Students at Ohio Southern.
"Understanding that everyone can succeed, and believing in (my) students" guide Stephens in his role as coordinator of Law Enforcement Technologies.
He credits his family background, growing up on a farm with five siblings, as giving him an understanding of the value of work and of perseverance.
"My life and educational experiences allow me to invest time in others who may face challenges such as I did," Stephens reflected.
Stephens hopes each graduate of the GCHS Class of 2019 will "be a difference maker in this world for positive." Most importantly, he hopes his fellow Musketeer alumni will "always find a way to give back to others, regardless of the career path you choose," he concluded.