Sierra O’Cull: Shooting for a Star
by Daniel Lowry
Sierra O’Cull sat on the living room floor inside her parents’ home on a hot, sun-drenched afternoon in July of 2017. She was alone, except for her two cats, Yellow and Snowball, which stretched out near her on the soft carpet. She could feel her nerves tighten, and she bit her lip and peered at the screen of her laptop. She was waiting to see if she’d receive a scholarship that was worth thousands of dollars.
“I thought, I’m just going to look,” she says. “It’s not going to be on there, but I’ll look anyway.”
Beginning a new path
Sierra was a straight-A student at Maysville Community & Technical College. She came to the college right out of Mason County High School, Class of 2015.
“I really liked the atmosphere, and I thought it would be a good transition into college,” she says. “I’m from Maysville, and I knew I wanted to get my basics.”
Sierra planned to attend MCTC for two years and transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I could take some exploratory classes.”
Sierra’s plan succeeded, and she fell in love with her business classes. She was able to work at MCTC, too, and her first job was as a student recruiter.
“They really worked around my class schedule. I travelled to high schools and talked to students about what it’s like here at MCTC.” Her role later transitioned to being at the welcome desk in the enrollment center. She would help people with questions about starting into higher education and beginning a new path in life.
“Some people are totally frustrated, and say they don’t know where to start. We get them ready for classes.”
Sierra smiles and remembers a woman who was really nervous about starting school. “She was such a sweet person,” she says. “She had just gone through a divorce, her children were in middle school, and this was an emotional time for her.” Beginning higher education can be stressful.
The chief of enrollment, Jessica Kern, took the new student into her office to help her through the process. A few minutes later, Sierra witnessed something strange.
“I saw Jessica literally running out of her office. It looked like she had some money in her hand.” Jessica went to the nearest vending machine and bought the lady a cold bottle of water. The lady had gotten so nervous that she felt like she was about to have an asthma attack.
“After it all calmed down, she was so happy that we were there. It’s always a good feeling to help someone.” The lady became a successful student, and she would often stop by to say hi and check in on Sierra, Jessica, and the others in the enrollment office.
Sierra says there are dozens of students who she knows by first name basis who she’s helped start the higher education process.
But now, after two years, her time as a student and an enrollment worker at MCTC has come to an end. She was able to graduate with her associate’s degree for free, and she applied for a transfer scholarship that could pay for four semesters at the University of Kentucky, where she would be able to complete her bachelor’s degree.
It felt like a miracle
The Phi Theta Kappa Transfer Scholarship to UK goes to only 10 students in the nation. For Sierra, she knew it was a longshot chance against stiff competition.
She had completed the application and answered two essay questions in June. She waited until July, when she sat on her living room floor and decided she would log in to her student account and see if she had gotten the scholarship.
“I was on pins and needles,” she says. She opened her student account and saw something that had not been there before. The words stole her breath for a moment: Phi Theta Kappa Transfer Scholarship.
“I had been told I would receive a letter if I got the award,” she says. She had not received a letter, so her mind raced. She took a deep breath and jumped up. “Is this real?” she asked herself. She grabbed her phone and called the University of Kentucky’s Scholarship Office.
The lady who answered listened to her, but stopped her before Sierra could finish saying her student identification number. The woman told her, “If I were you, I’d go celebrate.”
“I was in shock,” she says. “I still am. It felt like a miracle. It’s such an exciting feeling to know that I can go to a really good school in our state and not to have to pay for the tuition.”
When her mom and dad came home, she told them the big news. They shared a lot of laughter, screams and high fives.
In mid-August, she’ll move into her dormitory at the University of Kentucky. Unlike most students there, she already has two years behind her, and she’s ready to finish her path to her career in business management.
Sierra credits her faith in God, hard work, and her time at MCTC for the scholarship. Her green eyes sparkle, and there is a crack of raw emotion in her voice as she looks up at the ceiling.
“I had no idea, in a country of millions of people, that I could get this. It just shows you can dream big and shoot for the stars,” she says with a glow on her face.
Sierra O’Cull didn’t just shoot for the stars. She is becoming one.
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