If all goes as planned, Larry Guess will be the first member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s fledgling Bachelor of Applied Science in Applied Leadership (BAS-AL) online degree program to complete the program—in December.
And it only took him 25 years since he started college.
“Yeah, 25 years and five different attempts,” says Guess, a critical care paramedic based in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.
The BAS-AL program was designed for adult learners with previous college, military or work experience and for whom life always seemed to get in the way of crossing the undergraduate finish line. Guess, an emergency medical service member for 16 years and a paramedic the last four, checks off multiple boxes:
- Former military: Check.
- Working adult with a non-standard schedule: Check.
- Bachelor’s degree needed for career advancement: Check.
- Parent who has already seen a child receive a college degree: Check.
After spending time in the U.S. Army after high school, Guess’ academic journey resumed at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro in fall 1997. He says he enjoyed his time at MTSU a little too much.
“I was participating in every type of party you could do. My college education took a big hit and a big plummet. My priority was definitely on partying,” he says.
He says a wake-up call came on Dec. 20, 1998, the day his father died.
“I was high the last conversation I had with him,” Guess recalls, “and when he died, I was like, ‘OK, what did we talk about this morning?’ It got me questioning my priorities in life. My college career was pretty much done at that point, so it was time to go to work and do what grown folks do.
“Fast forward a couple of years, and I went back to school to become an EMT. That started my progression through the hierarchy of EMS.”
He earned degrees from Northeast Alabama Community College and Lenoir (North Carolina) Community College that allowed him to pursue that line of work. He also spent two years at UTC (2011-2012 and 2012-2013), majoring in business management while working at nearby Blood Assurance.
Then life again got in the way in the form of family issues that eventually cost him his job.
As close as he was to the finish line, he had to drop out of college.
Not finishing continued to gnaw at him. When he learned UTC was launching the new online program, he jumped at the opportunity.
“A paramedic degree can only go so far. I need that bachelor’s degree to go into leadership functions or to further my education,” he says. “When I finish this program, I plan to follow with either a D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) or P.A. (physician assistant) degree.”
In December, the 25-year journey toward a bachelor’s degree comes to an end.
The father of seven has already watched one daughter complete college. His youngest son, also in college, challenged him, “If I get my degree before you get yours, then I’m going to rub it in your face.”
“Surreal” is how he describes recently ordering a cap and gown for fall commencement.
“It’s going to be stupid cool,” Guess says. “I’m probably going to be that guy walking across the stage bawling because the emotion of that moment is going to be huge.”