Student News

From the coal mines to the classroom: Donovan Scholar’s dream of college degree comes true


LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 30, 2024) — Jim Adams loved his nearly 40-year career as a coal miner, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather before him. He never regretted his decision to go into mining despite his lifelong dream of attaining a college education.

Yet during his time spent in the mines mining coal, or outside working as a mechanic, he still longed for a college education and told himself “maybe someday.” Now, on Friday, May 3, Adams will walk across the stage at the University of Kentucky and see his dream come true when a diploma is placed in his hand.


Adams grew up in Isom, Kentucky, a small town near Hazard in eastern Kentucky. At age 17 he married his high school sweetheart. However, working and going to school became more than he could manage at the time, and just six weeks shy of graduating, he dropped out of high school.

“I immediately saw my mistake and my high school allowed me to get set up with correspondence courses and I graduated the following year,” Adams said. “When I was young, college wasn’t an option for me. My dad was a coal miner and at that time in the 70s, I really didn’t know how many scholarships and grants were available.

“Life happened” as Adams often says, and he and his wife started a family several years later as his experience as a coal miner began to build and take shape.

“I’ve driven coal trucks, worked as a surface miner and worked underground most of the time. That’s what I consider myself, an underground coal miner,” Adams said. “My dad got me my first job and he took me under his wing and taught me everything he could about coal mining. I just love coal mining. There’s a saying that once coal mining gets in your blood, it doesn’t leave, and that was the case with me.”

Throughout his career in the mines, Adams also became an electrician, worked for the state as a coal mine inspector and worked for the Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration as a coal mine inspector at the time of his retirement.

Although Adams had a career he loved, the dream of earning a college degree never dimmed.

“I’d be lying in mud and water trying to repair something and it crossed my mind many times, I could be doing something else,” he said.

Adams says the importance of an education was a seed planted by his parents.

“My dad came of age during WWII, a time when the world was in chaos. There wasn’t a lot of attention paid to education at the time and he and my mother saw in us kids the value of education.

“I have daughters so I didn’t have to worry about them going to the coal mines. This area in Eastern Kentucky depends on coal but in the last several years, coal has declined and there’s not much going on now at all. With education, if my daughters need to, they can go somewhere else and get a job. That’s the value of education.”

Adams did pursue his education when time and circumstances allowed. He took night classes in the late 80s and received an associate degree from Hazard Community College in 1999.

In an unexpected twist of fate, Adams sustained some injuries over the years eventually requiring multiple surgeries that forced him into early retirement in 2014 at age 57.

But with time and recovery on his side, life opened some doors of opportunity for Adams. When Adams decided it was time to put into motion what he had dreamed about all his life, he chose UK.

“My two daughters tried to get me to go to their alma maters but I said no, UK has always been the school I wanted to go to.”

Adams applied for a Donovan Scholarship at age 65, eight years after retiring from coal mining. He said that once he spoke to Trey Adkins, Donovan Scholars registrar, everything fell into place for him academically.

“The Donovan Scholarship provides students with an opportunity to earn their first degree or continue their education,” Adkins said. “It is also a great opportunity for students to complete courses purely for personal enrichment.”

When a friend recently asked Adams why he wanted to go back to school, he thinks it may go back to when he quit high school.

“I feel like I failed myself because I quit high school even though I did go back and finish. Going back and getting my college degree is something I thought might make me feel better about myself. Even though I’m 67-years-old and disabled, and I’m not going to go out to work, it’s just something I want to do for myself,” Adams said.

When Adams reflects on his time as a UK student, he credits the Donovan Scholars program for making his transition back to college seamless. He also realizes he didn’t take this journey alone.

“I would not have been able to realize my dream if I had not had the support and encouragement from my wife, two daughters and my granddaughter, and I never would have made it without my academic advisor, Jennifer Garlin.”

The illness that plagued Adams in the past has come back and another surgery is required. However, he didn’t want illness and recovery to be a setback to finishing his classes and graduating. So with his doctor’s approval,  the surgery date has been scheduled for just after graduation. Adams says he has waited his entire life to reach his goal and is determined to see it through.

No matter what the future holds for him, Adams is proud that he put in the time and the effort to see his dream come to fruition.

And walking across the commencement stage this Friday to receive his bachelor's degree in liberal studies from the College of Arts and Sciences is a must for Adams. His dad had encouraged him to go through the ceremony when he earned his associates degree, but he didn't do it.

“I regret that decision now because my dad wanted to see me do it. He’s not here but my wife and kids are,” Adams said. “I’m going to commencement if they have to pack me across the stage. I am most proud of the fact that I’m going to graduate from UK.”

The Donovan Scholarship program, housed in the Office of Lifelong Learning, is celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Lifelong Learning at the university this year. In 1964, on the recommendation of then UK President John Oswald, the Board of Trustees approved the Donovan Scholarship for adults 65 and older.

Donovan Scholars may audit classes for the joy of learning and take classes for credit without working toward a degree or take classes for credit as a degree-seeking candidate. Donovan Scholars may enroll in undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree programs.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.