One day last October, as senior Kyle Waznis was working his tail off in his second to last semester, he suddenly felt something was wrong. He called home, but no one picked up.
An hour later, he got a call back. Kyle’s father, Jim Pruett, had just been told he had an aggressive “butterfly tumor” the size of a tennis ball in his brain, and that he had only a few months to live. Kyle quickly did the math and came to an awful realization: His father wouldn’t live long enough to see him walk at commencement in May.
“Within six hours, everything in life had changed,” Kyle said.
His family’s world in turmoil, Kyle returned to campus wondering if he should even finish the semester, drop out entirely, or abandon plans for a master’s degree at Illinois State. But he didn’t quit, and within days his professors and University staff had stepped up in a big way – so big that his father was able to see him walk at graduation, so big that Kyle didn’t have to take valuable time away from his Dad to get a job.
It all started when Kyle, an organizational and leadership communication major, shared his situation with Penelope Long, Ph.D. ’87, a School of Communication faculty member and director of advisement.
Kyle didn’t enjoy school as a kid and never wanted to go to college, finding a good job by age 18. But his father, who never earned a degree, insisted over and over again he go. So Kyle went to a junior college and all of a sudden was earning A’s. He got gutsy and left home in Joliet for Illinois State.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” Kyle says.
On her own, Kyle says, Long reached out to University Registrar Jess Ray ‘91, M.S. ‘95 to see if Kyle could walk in the December 15 commencement instead of May, so his dad could be there. Ray said he could.
Graduation day is special for every family, and Kyle’s was no exception. His father’s mental state had declined since the diagnosis, but he was able to make it through the whole December ceremony. One of Kyle’s friends joined him in putting Jim’s initials on their graduation caps.
The best part of the day was when Kyle joined his parents after the ceremony, and his dad, who could no longer speak full sentences, told him: “I’m so proud of you.” The cancer had already robbed Kyle’s family of so many memories of shared life events that would never happen.
“I thought I’d lose graduation too. But they gave me one more weekend,” Kyle says.
Ray said the University does occasionally get requests for exceptions to a student’s scheduled commencement, and Kyle’s was unusual because it was asking to be part of an early ceremony.
“But really, in the grand scheme, we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. He’s just been very appreciative,” Ray told STATEside.
Kyle’s turbulent senior year was not over. His mother, Michelle Pruett, stayed at home his whole life, and his father was the sole breadwinner, meaning the family’s changing financial situation would put Kyle’s spring semester at risk. Ray reached out to Illinois State’s director of financial aid, Jana Albrecht, M.B.A. ‘06, to help. Kyle got an email right away from Albrecht.
“She had the kindest words, all this compassion, from a stranger who doesn’t even know me from any other student,” Kyle said.
In a meeting, Albrecht told him about the Red and White Scholarship, a fund set up recently by University Advancement and supported by alumni donors, in part to help students cover the cost of college when they’re out of other options—exactly the situation Kyle was in now.
“When we told him that, he cried in our office,” said Albrecht.
The scholarship for spring semester means that Kyle doesn’t have to get a job, which would’ve taken him away from his father in his final months. What the scholarship gave Kyle was time.
“All anyone has done at this University is work toward (my father’s) dream. I never felt like I was part of an institution as I do here,” Kyle says. “This big, scary place has become home.”
Beyond the scholarship and commencement, Kyle says the School of Communication faculty, staff, and advisers have provided a level of emotional and academic support he could never have expected. He got a hug from chair Larry Long, and a “call me anytime” phone number from Associate Professor Lance Lippert.
By now, “everyone at this University has seen me cry,” Kyle says, but his professors have not held it against him or done anything but cry right alongside him. The most amazing part: Most of the assistance Kyle has received, as told in this story, came over the course of just two days last semester.
“Kyle is a wonderful young man, very well deserving of everything that ISU did to grant his Dad’s wishes of watching him walk across the stage,” Penelope Long said via email.
Today, Kyle’s father is back at home, and Kyle is traveling back and forth as he finishes his bachelor’s degree. Kyle plans to attend Illinois State for his master’s in interpersonal communication, with hopes of becoming a teacher—like those who left such an impression on him in recent months.
Kyle is also struggling to write “thank you” emails to all those who contacted him since his father’s diagnosis. Many were from strangers. (He got so many he created a special folder in his email inbox.)
“They gave me something that was taken away,” Kyle says. “They gave it back to me.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.