Kavarius Hester is rightfully proud of the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree that he received May 4 during commencement exercises at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
His accomplishment was also a point of pride for students, faculty and staff at the UT Martin Somerville Center, as well as a contingent of supporters from Fayette County who were present to see Hester walk across the commencement stage. The new college graduate holds the distinction of being the first student to enroll in UT Martin classes when they were first offered in Somerville and then complete all of his college credits at the center to earn his degree. His success will help to inspire others who can follow in his footsteps and earn a University of Tennessee degree without leaving Fayette County.
Hester graduated from Fayette-Ware High School in 2014 and enrolled in UT Martin classes at the Fayette County Career Center. “I chose UTM because I think it’s a good school,” he said of this college choice. “I have some relatives that went there, and I went to UT Martin at Somerville because I wanted to stay close to home.”
Although he remained in Somerville to attend college, his path to a degree was not easy. He worked part-time at Walmart in the lawn and garden department and then attended classes, completed homework and studied during his off hours. “I say the challenge (of working and going to school) is having enough time to get schoolwork done after work on a daily basis,” Hester said. Even with a challenging work schedule, he averaged 12 to 15 credit hours per semester and never enrolled in a class at the main campus. He credits his family, UTM faculty members and center director Kara Tapp for supporting his educational journey.
Hester not only earned a college degree, but he also followed his interest in criminal justice that will allow him to pursue his law enforcement career goals. “It (law enforcement) was something that I always wanted to do because I love watching shows like Law and Order, SVU and CSI, and it was something that always grabbed my interest,” he said, adding, “The main thing is I like to help people.”
Discussions to create college opportunities in Fayette County for students like Hester began in 2004. The University of Tennessee and UT Martin became involved in higher-education discussions in 2012, and a new building to serve as the center’s home was originally proposed. However, while the project was deemed cost-prohibitive, the goal to create a higher-education center remained, and university classes were offered for the first time in 2014 in downtown Somerville.
Methodist Fayette Hospital then closed in March 2015, and Somerville officials approached Methodist Healthcare about donating the facility to the town. The building was transferred in July 2015, and Methodist Healthcare also gave the city $250,000 to assist with the facility’s renovation. The State Building Commission approved a lease on July 25, 2016, between the University of Tennessee and the town of Somerville to house the UT Martin Somerville Center in the former hospital building.
Earlier in 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly approved $250,000 in recurring funding for the center in the state’s 2016-17 budget. Also approved was $875,000 in one-time funding to help renovate the facility, which matched local funds raised by private citizens, Somerville and Fayette County. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam visited Somerville on July 26 to formally present UT Martin with the total $1.125 million in state funding to establish the new center. A ground-breaking event was held Dec. 7 to officially begin the renovation project that was completed in time for 2017 fall classes.
Tapp, who became full-time center director in 2016, was among those who attended commencement with Hester, and she said his success is important to her personally and to the community. “Being from Somerville, and being a part of the community, and being able to offer access to higher education within our community, it is huge,” she said. “To be able to give this opportunity to Kavarius is something that I will always remember until the day I die because we gave him something that can never be taken away from him, which is an education.”
She added that Hester wasn’t alone in his journey to a college degree. “He was successful because he had a support team,” Tapp said. “The whole community was supporting him, was standing beside him, rooting him on, made sure he was doing everything he possibly could to get there and achieve the goal of a degree right there in our hometown.”
Somerville Mayor Ronnie Neill also accompanied the Fayette County group to commencement. He has watched the center evolve from the beginning, and Hester’s graduation is an important milestone. “To go from the facilities that we started out with on the square in two rooms to what we have now, … it just shows what you can do when everybody pulls together with a common goal in the end, and you know what you’re trying to accomplish,” he said.
Hester’s graduation provided an occasion to celebrate, and more graduations are sure to follow as Neill sees a bright future for the Somerville Center. “Well, I think it (the center) can be very big. I think we have an additional 30,000 square feet there that I hope at some point we will need to use for the UTM center,” he said. “That was the whole purpose of it – to bring programs in there to help people earn a living and to improve their lives.”
So, when you see Kavarius Hester working in law enforcement, know that he is pursuing his passion, all because he earned a University of Tennessee degree and never had to leave Fayette County to reach his goal.