Donovan Scholars embrace lifelong learning

Published 10:00 am Thursday, May 31, 2018

MIDDLESBORO — Success does not have an expiration date. Just ask James Martin of Middlesboro, who, at age 71, just earned his associate in applied science from Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning mechanic. Graduating from college, says Martin, “is a lifelong dream of mine.”

He is not alone. Middlesboro’s Birdell Ballenger began the two-year HVAC program last fall – at age 70. “This was the first college class I’ve ever taken,” says Ballenger. “I figure you’re never too old to keep learning.”

Martin and Ballenger have been able to attend Southeast as Donovan Scholars. This designation awards students who are 65 or older a state-mandated tuition waiver.

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According to Southeast professor Roger Bowling, “Both of these gentlemen have been a tremendous asset to the program. They have learned a lot about the latest technology from the younger students, but those young guys have learned so much about work ethic and professionalism from them.”

Although Martin is retired and does not aspire to a career in the field, he says he was motivated to complete the HVAC program because he craved knowledge.

“I always wanted to know how the system worked,” he says.

On the other hand, Ballenger saw the opportunity to attain a credential and advance in a field in which he has worked for the last 27 years. When he is not in class, he works full-time for Evans Construction.

“I work seven days a week,” he says.

Both men agree that they have thoroughly enjoyed their experiences as students at Southeast. They have developed a warm comradery with their instructors as well as with their fellow students.

“We are sort of like a family,” says Ballenger.

His class “worked together as a team. We just cut up and rib each other—they are the best guys in the world.” Martin says of instructors Roger Bowling and Terry Nelson, “There are not better men around. This program was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

When asked what advice they would give to young students starting out, they were quick to reply. Martin says that the “biggest thing is knowing what you want to do. Get the knowledge, but get that credential—proof that you have the knowledge.”

Ballenger encourages them to listen and study. “Don’t work harder” he says, “but work smarter.”

Ballenger recently earned his certificate in Indoor Environmental Control Systems, and he plans to complete his associate degree in May 2019. He shows no sign of slowing down.

According to Ballenger, “People don’t want to be cold, and they don’t want to be hot. There is always plenty of work.”

Martin, who struggles with COPD and is on his fifth pacemaker, is taking a well-deserved break for now. Even better than earning his degree, he says, is the sense of accomplishment he feels after walking across the stage at graduation. “I proved to myself I could do it,” he says, “even at 71 years old.”