After serving five terms as a member of the House of Representatives for the state of Texas, Susan King has returned to Abilene to go back to school.
“When I got out of the Legislature, I thought, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to go back to school so I’m going to do it,’” said King, who worked as a nurse for over 35 years before being elected to the state legislature in 2014.
King spoke with elegance, one could tell she had previous practice in public speaking and interviews. Her wardrobe was professional but her pink-dyed hair tips made one interested to hear her story.
King grew up in Houston and came to Abilene originally in 1979, after obtaining her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Texas in Austin. She was a member of the Abilene ISD board of trustees for eight years.
“Along the way I had children and other things, and I always wanted to go back to school,” King said.
Her opportunity to return to school arose after pursuing a career in the state Legislature.
“Quit complaining if you’re not willing to do anything about it,” King’s oldest daughter would say, which became her main motivation for her political career.
“I thought well that’s kind of sassy for one of my children to tell me that but I thought, ‘Well, why not,’” King said. “So that’s when I kind of launched into the political realm.”
After 10 years in the state legislature, King decided to run for the Texas Senate. When she chose to run for Senate, she had to give up her position in the House. But she lost the election to Senate.
“You have to make a decision,” King said. “I was not going to the Senate, so that kind of presented the perfect opportunity for me to seek graduate school.”
Helen King, Susan’s oldest daughter, said she loves the fact that her mother has chosen to go back to school. Helen was working on her Ph.D. in political science at the time her mother began graduate school and was happy to share that experience with her.
“She is a lifelong learner and has always had a deep appreciation for education,” Helen said. “It just makes sense. She is also happiest helping other people, so her program is the perfect fit. I am thrilled for my mother and this new chapter in her life.”
King decided to return to Abilene and applied to ACU’s graduate school during the last week of the application deadline. She was accepted in the Fall of 2018 and is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and Christian ministry.
“When you come back to school after a certain period of time, it’s different,” King said. “I mean this is not the way school was back when I went to undergraduate school.”
One of the primary differences King described was the enormity of UT, compared to the small campus of ACU. King said as an undergraduate student at UT, she seemed like just a number to many with freshmen classes between 300 and 400 students.
“It was very difficult to discern a family atmosphere at UT – very different from the nurturing and excellent faculty to student ratio at ACU,” King said. “At UT, there was little emphasis on student input or feedback – just the opposite of ACU. I recall making an appointment with the dean of the School of Nursing to share suggestions on how the curriculum might be strengthened and concerns of dishonest research at the school. This was received with the comment, ‘Miss Lewis, you do realize you are a student…’ I found that response to be rather curious.”
King noted another difference is that she now uses a car for transportation, instead of a bike.
“Being a non-traditional student is a unique experience,” King said. “I recall these types of students in my undergrad classes at UT. We rarely spoke to them and stereotyped them as people who thought they knew more than we did. With that in my past, my efforts to dispel this myth has been met with mixed reviews.”
King said she has been blessed with three major life experiences that inevitably impacted her thinking: serving as director of surgery in a major Texas medical center hospital at the time of huge growth in cardiac surgery, spending eight years on the board of the Abilene ISD and working 10 years as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. However, she is careful not to reference these experiences in class dialogue, unless there is a precise correlation.
“I do not want my student colleagues to dismiss comments as ego-driven, which is not my intent,” King said.
King said after completing a Maymester class in the Graduate School of Theology, her professor said he was disappointed she had not mentioned the Legislature. She told him it would not have been appropriate in a spiritual formation class unless he had posed a pertinent question that would have been answered at his request.
“Basically, any answer I offer, whether be it an opinion, perceived bias by others or life experiences, my sincere goal is to be a part of the discussion as a participating class member,” King said. “It is a mixed bag, a delicate balancing act. It is important to thoughtfully contribute and guard against perceived intimidation, which is never the intent.”
Dr. Melinda Thompson, associate professor and director of distance education in the GST, said King has brought helpful life experiences into the classroom.
“Susan started her career as a nurse working in a busy hospital. Eventually she moved into public service in the state Legislature. Both of those jobs definitely require a solid work ethic,” Thompson said. “And both of those experiences, focused on serving others, have uniquely shaped Susan for the ministry service God is calling her to do now.”
The School of Social Work had previously discussed hiring King as a non-traditional student ambassador to assist other students returning to school and adjusting to the new environment.
“I just decided that I’m going to embrace it as just a regular student,” King said. “I have to do the same work but it’s just a little bit more of a challenge in some areas. And in some ways, it’s much easier than I thought because I have so many more life experiences. I’m not worried about giving my opinion, so in that way it’s been a lot of fun.”
Thompson said her students overall tend toward a pretty good work ethic.
“They have to; graduate programs are tough,” Thompson said. “There’s also less of a distinction between traditional and non-traditional students at the graduate level. That said, I think our non-traditional students bring good experience from their life outside the academy. They know what it’s like to balance work and family and lots of other demands. And they’ve experienced more ‘real life’ situations, which is especially helpful for ministry students like Susan. They’ve got their own experiences to draw on as they think about how God could use them in the future.”
Tamara Long, vice president for enrollment management at ACU, said advisors work hard to support all students and connect them to resources unique to their needs.
“In Abilene, we know our campus is residential in nature and our course schedule is not conducive to most non-traditional needs, especially [for those] working full-time and without flexible schedules,” Long said.
On campus, ACU enrolls around 100-115 transfer students each year and typically two to four non-traditional transfer students. Long said those few students are driven to earn a specific degree that typically can’t be earned as easily in an online mode of delivery, like pre-med or teacher education. According to those numbers, on-campus non-traditional students are rare. Online non-traditional students are more common.
During her time as a graduate student King is required to obtain 12-20 hours each week of field practicum. King is on track to graduate with her two master’s degrees in two years. However, she must also complete a major thesis for her graduate degree in social work.
King said she is unsure what the future holds after graduation.
“That’s the question of the day,” King said. “I’ve always been very fortunate to have things happen to me, before me, or in spite of me that led me a different direction. So I am not sure. There’s so many different opportunities with social work and Christian ministry. I think if God wants me to stay here, somehow or another the opportunity will be revealed to me. That sounds a little bit mystical for some people, perhaps, but I think that’s how it works.”
King said a kind of synergy exists between the two degrees because of the commonalities between faith and helping others. She loves to teach and work with difficult people populations and is open to different opportunities.
“One of the unique things about Susan from an academic perspective is that she is pursuing not one but two master’s degrees,” Thompson said. “The Graduate School of Theology allows students to utilize credits from the Master of Science in Social Work to meet degree requirements for our Master of Arts in Christian Ministry. Earning one master’s degree is hard enough. Earning two takes even more dedication. It is exciting to hear Susan reflect on what she is learning in her social work classes and how that impacts her ministry classes here in the GST and vice-versa.”
“This is the real world and I’ve learned that,” King said. “In a way it emboldens you to know that you are more mature. It’s fun to work together with all these generations.”
Thompson recounted a moment from leading a faculty-student weekly mentor group, in which King participated. The group met each week in the Campus Center at 7 a.m. Thompson said one week King noticed someone sleeping in a chair across from their meeting place and walked up to the person, introduced herself and asked a few gentle questions.
“When she came back to our group she mentioned that she wanted to make sure the person wasn’t homeless,” Thompson said. “The care and intentionality she demonstrated, not to mention the courage to approach a total stranger, really touched me. As I’ve gotten to know Susan better I’ve come to realize that these ‘random acts of kindness’ are just who she is. She’s not afraid to ask hard questions or put herself in a potentially awkward situation if it will help others. The rest of us, faculty and students alike, are learning from her example.”