By Richard Burnett
With tenacity in his step, James Avery strides across the Beacon College campus in Leesburg, Florida, to his math class. He arrives early – as always – and immediately digs into solving the daily math problems, impressing everyone with his determination.
But impressing people is not what motivates Avery to succeed. It’s a promise made long ago to his family that he would get a college education. From his parents to his 11 siblings, especially an older sister who became his mentor, he stands on the shoulders of giants – many of whom are now passed from this world.
“They all still resonate in my life,” said Avery, 57, a retired Navy communications specialist and non-traditional student in his first year at Beacon. “I feel I have to take the positive things they left with me to pay it forward and focus on living my best life now.”
A saving grace
Avery grew up in the rolling hills of east-central Alabama, in a household full of siblings, cousins and other extended family. His father was a truck driver-turned-county maintenance worker; his mother, a full-time mom who also worked in the cotton fields.
Along the way, education became a driving force for the family. Many siblings attended college, joined the military, or did both. For him, however, schooling proved to be a tough slog in reading, writing or arithmetic. His saving grace during those years was his older sister, Josephine, a college graduate, and special education teacher, who worked countless hours helping Avery with his homework.
“She was someone who just commanded your respect,” Avery recalled. “Whenever she spoke, it was with a very particular energy, and you knew you had to do right. She was a great example for me. She and my other siblings really stood for something and had great jobs. My parents and grandparents were great examples too.”
With their encouragement, he worked hard in high school and eventually graduated, despite his persistent learning challenges. He was also motivated by his love of sports. An all-star baseball player, he was recruited by several colleges that offered him full athletic scholarships. But Avery turned them all down, worried about the academic and financial pressures of higher education.
Besides that, he already had a very different destination awaiting him: He had joined the Navy.
An improbable, but remarkable journey for non-traditional student
Avery’s stint in the Navy was almost over before it started in 1982, he said. In boot camp, the trainers discovered his reading and attention problems, pulled him from the starting class and assigned him to a remedial class. Avery feared he’d be discharged and sent home, embarrassed, and discouraged.
“But my sister had built so much confidence and work ethic in me, I refused to fail,” he wrote in a scholarship application. “I wouldn’t go out [to clubs] like my other shipmates. I had to read my books and notes over and over, until I understood it. I passed, rejoined another class, and graduated boot camp!”
What followed was an improbable, but remarkable journey that took Avery around the world supporting military operations from Europe to Latin America. He found his niche as a naval combat communications expert in Morse code and other code languages. It was a specialty that fit Avery’s learning style, relying on intense repetition. His active-duty career spanned more than two decades from 1982 to 2003, followed by a stint with the Department of Defense.
During those years, he married and raised two children, both of whom now have advanced degrees and professional careers. Avery himself took courses at various colleges along the way, but was unable to get the help he needed to overcome his learning obstacles.
That changed when he found out about Beacon, thanks to some U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs counselors. They told him about the college while helping Avery understand his learning disabilities, which had been exacerbated by post-traumatic stress. After being accepted to Beacon last year, he moved from Maryland to Leesburg to begin classes in January.
‘They walk the walk, here’
From the beginning, Beacon has been a fresh start for Avery in his quest for a college education. After taking classes at four different colleges and visiting others, he feels he has finally landed in the right place.
“The first time I came to the campus, the people were so nice to me. I started to believe that I would fit in here,” he said. “It was so different from schools I’d been to in the past. I’d been set up so many times by folks telling me they’d give me the support I needed, then not following through. At Beacon, it’s different. They walk the walk here, not just talk the talk.”
With his motivation and maturity, Avery takes his commitment to education to the next level, according to faculty members who know him well.
“As an older student, James has lived through things in life that most of our students will only see in the history books,” said Dr. Kevin Chandler, associate professor of math, who routinely sees Avery arrive at 8 a.m. to work in the math lab when it opens. “He’s really driven and never gives up. But he’s also easy to talk to and a good listener. He talks to the younger students and tries to help them – but he’s careful to stay out of their drama.”
Dr. Melissa Boduch, Beacon’s lead learning specialist and academic advisor, found common ground with Avery in talking about life in the armed forces. Her husband is a military retiree.
“James comes to us with a wealth of knowledge, not your typical college student who’s new to the world,” she said. “He’s lived places and he’s raised a family. Now he’s working on himself. He has learned to adapt and developed great skills. Now he’s fine-tuning those skills and coming into his own as a college student.”
Avery said such support and encouragement from the Beacon community has helped him overcome negative college experiences from the past.
“I had to believe in education again. Now, the mistrust and doubt is gone,” he said. “At Beacon, they are who they say they are – from the professors to the people working in the cafeteria and on the grounds. It’s a team that provides a lot of positive support. And I believe they can help me accomplish my goals.”