Dr. Aaron Thompson is no stranger to success. By that token, he is no stranger to hard work. For him, success and hard work go hand in hand and were instilled upon him by his parents at a young age.
Thompson had a unique childhood in that he was one of nine siblings growing up poor in rural Appalachia while being black. He was born in a log cabin in eastern Kentucky, and before too long, his family moved to Clay County, where they lived and worked for a sharecropper.
"My father and mother grew the crops, and my brothers and sisters worked in the field to help support the owner," Thompson said. "We got to live on the farm and kept 25 percent of the goods."
While the family lived off the land, Thompson's family was still poor. They had no money, and what they did receive was little. His father worked in the coal mines and, when he came home, he would tend to the farm. Thompson's mother would take in extra work whenever she could to make ends meet. His parents worked hard to provide for him and his brothers and sisters.
Despite neither of his parents graduating from high school, his mother and father were his biggest proponents for him to go and earn his high school diploma. Even though they didn't know what kind of path Thompson would have to take, they constantly were driving him towards success. But Thompson's path to learning was a rocky one, filled with hardships along the way that he would learn to overcome.
When Thompson first stepped foot into the world of education, he was just 4-years-old and starting kindergarten at an all black school. Things became a little harder when he transitioned into elementary school a short time later.
"I was integrated into the county elementary. It was a hard time for kids and other people in the school because they weren't used to being in school with people of color," Thompson recalled. "Those early years were a tough time."
But that didn't dissuade Thompson from getting his education. He had teachers who cared for him and offered him encouragement along the way. There were teachers who protected Thompson from students who wanted to do him harm because of his skin color and there were teachers who made sure Thompson had all of the tools he needed to keep moving forward.
Thompson's mother taught him cursive when he was young and his father taught him what it meant to work hard. He treated going to school like a privilege and never missed a single day.
"Especially when I was growing up young and black and there were no schools for black people. When I had the chance to go, I went. It helped me to be in an environment where I could get an education and I thought it was a privilege to do so," Thompson said.
Thompson used his privilege of going to school to take on opportunities that other students left behind. While summer school is typically left for those who are behind in subject areas, Thompson was going for a different reason.
"I was never behind, I was always ahead. I'd go to summer school to read more books and to get out of work at home," Thompson laughed as he recalled. "But my chores were there waiting for me when I got back."
This was all apart of some idea Thompson had gotten into his head, this idea of continuous improvement. He was always asking himself "What knowledge do I need to get to the next level?" Despite the troubles that pressed him as he attended elementary, middle and high school, Thompson learned a valuable lesson in resiliency, one he continues to learn more about even now as an adult.
"I've been through a lot of stuff that wasn't easy. I've had down turns and negativity happens. Things were not just linearly laid out for me. So along the way, when I got knocked down, it wasn't something to think about. It was tough and embarrassing at times but I did get back up and moved forward," Thompson said. "Resiliency taught me and lead me to this position. You don't get here without a lot of times that weren't good for you, but I had good ones that were good and I took advantage of it. I never liked being wrong, so I worked hard to be right."
Thompson's hard work paid off. After graduating high school, he attended Eastern Kentucky University, where he would go to school during the day and work 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. stocking shelves. He graduated in three and a half years.
But one thing that never changed over the years was the racism Thompson had to face on all levels.
"I had to not let that be the case of how I looked at people and that was tough to deal with as I graduated college. There weren't a lot of people that looked like me," Thompson said. "It was still tough, there were people who didn't expect me to do well because I was poor and Appalachian and black."
After earning his degree and stepping into the workforce, he was faced with glass ceilings everywhere he went. People would tell him he would never get promoted due to his skin color or because he "talked black." Thompson faced hidden and institutionalized racism as he moved up in his positions. The higher he climbed, the more he experienced these instances without it being so blatant and obvious like when he was younger.
But there were also people on the other side of the fence that wanted nothing more than to see Thompson succeed. And he wasn't going to let his experience with racism keep him from doing what is important to him.
"That's why I dedicated my life in trying to cut down on bias and doing the things it takes to promote equality. That's one of my biggest items working on now is focusing on closing gaps in equality," Thompson said. "All of those things, those experiences would be a lie, those things I learned along the way. We carry that stuff with us, it's hidden. Me experiencing it is not a lot of different than others, but I was educated and trained in that area so I could try to avoid it or find ways to overcome that barrier to get to where I am today."
Today, Thompson is the fourth president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. For him, education changed his life. He became a better thinker, a better problem solver, a better person. He broke the cycle for his family, and now has the ability to show his children what having an education means.
"I broke something that hadn't been broken. Because of that, my kids won't understand that struggle as much, that education has offered me a way to success and a future. It's not just about the money, but the way I think about living life," Thompson said. "My father used to say to me, 'Boy there's only two things worth fighting for, education and family.' And that's what I've been doing ever since."
In his position as president, Thompson hopes he can reach students who think college isn't going to be for them because they can't afford it. He wants all the students in Kentucky to know they have the opportunity to be successful, whether that is through a four year college institution or trade school, just as long as it's something beyond high school.
"Our job to them is aligning them with hope and career paths," Thompson said. "To have them think of where they want to go and help maneuver them to that pathway. Let them understand how to do it."
Thompson also wants to see more adult learners back in the education world, to travel around the state visiting schools to talk about why having a higher education is valuable and to close the equality gap.
But most importantly, Thompson wants those young learners to know if he could do it, so can they.
"I will tell them that they can do it, even if they don't believe they can. I didn't think I could do math but I became a statistician. The idea of just doing it means you are consistent," Thompson said. "If I can do it, if I can come from a family with little to none, they can, too. They have to just believe. My job will be to help them believe and show them how to do it."
Reach Kaitlyn Brooks at 624-6608; follow her on Twitter @kaitlynskovran.