As a U.S. Army veteran and longtime critical care paramedic, Larry Guess is used to keeping his emotions in check.
On Saturday, Dec. 17, don’t be surprised if the 48-year-old openly sheds a tear or two as he crosses the commencement stage after hearing his name called.
Guess, an Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter flight paramedic, is a member of the inaugural class of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Applied Leadership (BAS-AL) online degree program to complete the curriculum and receive a degree—15 months after the program started and 25 years after his college journey began. He will participate in UTC undergraduate commencement ceremonies taking place at McKenzie Arena.
“The realization of it all still seems wild to me; the emotion of that moment will be huge,” Guess said. “Just finally making it to this point and knowing all the sacrifices that my family’s made, that I’ve made, that different people have made to ensure that I’m able to do this is pretty overwhelming.
“Especially this woman,” he continued, turning to his wife, Dianna. “She puts up with my being on the computer half the night when I should be helping with dishes or with the kids or something. She understands getting this degree has been my end goal.”
She was nodding in agreement.
“I am immensely proud of him,” Dianna Guess said. “He doesn’t say much about all the odds he’s had to fight to get to this point in his life. His steadfastness has been very inspiring.”
Following his enlistment in the U.S. Army—“Desert Storm was going on as my senior year was wrapping up, so a whole group of us from high school decided to take off to the military”—Guess returned to civilian life in 1997 and began his collegiate career at Middle Tennessee State University.
He said his focus at the time was the social aspect of the college experience, not his education, and the wake-up call came on Dec. 20, 1998—the day his father died.
“I was high the last conversation I had with him,” Guess recalled, “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.”
A few years later, he went back to school to become an emergency medical technician, earning degrees from Northeast Alabama Community College and Lenoir (North Carolina) Community College that allowed him to pursue that line of work. That started his progression through the hierarchy of emergency medical services, and he has been an EMS member for 16 years and a paramedic the last five.
Along the way, he spent two academic years at UTC (2011-2012 and 2012-2013), majoring in business management. Life got in the way again in the form of family issues, forcing him to drop out of school.
He admitted he often thought, “It’s just not going to happen for me,” when dreaming of an elusive bachelor’s degree.
A couple of years ago, Guess received a correspondence telling him about the possible launch of a UTC online degree program for working adults.
“The email basically said, ‘Hey, we’re interested in putting this program together. We’re reaching out to prior students who are close to their degrees but aren’t quite there. Would you be interested in a teleconference to discuss the different things?’ And I was like, ‘Sure.’”
Of course, since nothing else has been straight-line for Guess in pursuing the college degree, he missed the meeting; while driving, he had crossed time zones, “and when I went to get on the call, I realized I was an hour late.
“I was like, ‘Well, there went my opportunity again.’”
Out of curiosity, he sent an email a couple of months later to ask how that call went and learned that the program’s creation had been approved.
“I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity this time,” he said.
Guess has become a walking billboard for the BAS-AL program’s target audience: adult learners for whom life always seemed to get in the way of crossing the undergraduate finish line.
Dr. Beth Crawford, UC Foundation professor and program adviser, said the BAS-AL “is designed for working adults like Larry who need the flexibility of an online program in order to complete their degree.”
After being introduced in fall 2021, the BAS-AL has grown from its inaugural enrollment of 11 to have 53 members in fall 2022.
“Larry has been a valued student in the program since our first semester,” said Dr. David Rausch, associate dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies and professor and director of learning and leadership programs at UTC. “He has been dedicated to his studies throughout the process and engages fully in all aspects of the program.”
In Guess’ case, he never thought he’d be able to complete college because of the job constraints of his non-standard schedule.
A bachelor’s degree, he said, creates an opportunity for career advancement.
“A paramedic degree can only go so far,” he explained. “I cannot go into a leadership function without the bachelor’s degree.”
Being in the BAS-AL program has already paid dividends.
“During my interview with Air Evac,” he recalled, “they asked, ‘What are you doing to better yourself? What are you doing to improve your education and to improve your sellability?’ As soon as I said I was enrolled in this program, they wanted to know more about it and they were just as excited as I was about finishing that degree.”
Twenty-five years after his first college class, Guess—a father of seven, ranging from adult to three children under the age of 7—will soon be able to call himself a first-generation college graduate.
“Being first generation is spectacular,” he said. “Sadly, my dad’s not with us to celebrate and my mother has dementia, so she’s not going to be part of that celebration, but my children, grown and littles, are all very excited about me graduating.”
While her husband might be unable to control his emotions as he walks across the stage, Dianna Guess made it clear that she won’t be holding back.
“I will cry; I know I will,” she said. “Our three littles are always talking about, ‘Daddy’s in school,’ and we’re using that as a springboard so that the next generation can have that higher level of education.”