Canton grandfather, veteran says it’s never too late to pursue a dream

Ken Lancaster

Ken Lancaster will be leaving Stark State College after commencement with a degree and a dream.

The Canton grandfather will start spring semester in a bachelor’s degree program at Malone University, his sights set on a master’s degree. “Stark State has given me the opportunity to realize there’s always more to reach for,” he said. “You just have to start somewhere.”

A 1973 graduate of Canton McKinley High and a US Air Force veteran, Ken worked as a billing clerk at Republic Steel. After he was laid off, he then held jobs as a youth leader, an account clerk, a correctional program specialist and case manager, a parole officer and a customer service representative.

At one point, his life veered off course. “I made some bad decisions and choices,” he said. “I paid the price. It was a learning experience.” Unable to find a job, he twice attempted to create a nonprofit organization to offer mentoring, counseling and education to help ex-inmates transition successfully from prison to society. Despite the backing of a number of community resources, the plans met with resistance from neighbors. Finding a lack of higher education a detriment, he vowed to return to school. In 2011 he registered at Stark State with specific goals and objectives. First on the list: an associate degree in two years.

Check. “That’s what I’ve done,” he said. Along with a full-time schedule, he took on a job as a student worker for good measure. Working in the Career Development Office was part of his education, he said. “It taught me there are opportunities, but you have to search for them.” And, apparently, a sizeable work ethic doesn’t hurt, either. “I knew I wanted to keep my grades up,” he said. “I didn’t want to come and “C” and “D” my way through.” Now he’s graduating with distinction with a 3.67 GPA, an applied science in human and social services degree in hand.

Next up in the goal department: bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Malone University felt like the right fit to get started, and while his grades made him eligible for a scholarship, he still came up $3,200 short. “I believe I’m on the track God wants me on, so I said I think God has $3,200 somewhere for me,” Ken remembered. Well, $3,000 anyway. “They called and said, ‘Ken, do you have $200?’ I said, ‘I can get it!”

After an SSC practicum working at Project Rebuild where he researched grants focused on jobs for at-risk youth, he’s ready to take on the learning experiences that lie ahead. “Once I get into the curriculum, that’s where I’m going to soar,” he predicted. The end goal: to become a licensed independent social worker.

Stark State, he said, gave him the foundation to launch his new life plan. The instructors were “great,” career development was “wonderful,” and even an encounter with the College president made a positive impression on him. “Dr. (Para) Jones made me feel like a person. She was concerned about my education and goals. That was awesome. I believe success flows from top to bottom and bottom to top when people take pride in what they do, in their day-to-day tasks,” he said.

A baby boomer who plans to be around for a while, Ken didn’t let his age interfere with dreaming a new dream. “I figure I might as well do everything I can do,” he said. “It’s generating versus stagnating.” The fact that it will take him more than three years to get there might be daunting, “but that time’s going to go by whether you’re doing something or not,” he said.

“I want to accomplish everything I can for my grandson and granddaughter. I want to tell them one day, ‘Grandpa did it and you can, too.’ Everyone has something they’re dealing with. You have to let your circumstances catapult you into your purpose.”

Ken said he owes it to himself and the College to be his best. “I thank all the people at Stark State who helped me and molded me and encouraged me. In three or four years I’ll be back here to encourage other students, let them know it all started right here at Stark State College. It’s been a wonderful journey, and it’s not over yet.”