Four years ago, Rich Lyke was facing an uncertain future. On the verge of losing his customer service job, he wasn’t sure what to do next. Now, with a double major in marketing and management at the Haslam College of Business, he’s preparing to graduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in May.
“I always wanted to go back to college but could never afford it because I needed to work continuously to support my family,” Lyke, the father of a 13-year-old daughter and 30-year-old son, both of whom he has raised as a single parent, says.
Originally from upstate New York, Lyke graduated from high school in 1984 and spent two years studying electrical engineering at The Citadel in Charleston, SC. When financial issues forced him to leave school before completing his degree, he decided to join the military. His eight-year career in the service took him to Virginia, Alabama and Korea, and included jumping from Blackhawk helicopters, details of which he describes as classified.
Leaving the military in 1994, he found work in the gaming and comics hobby industry, traveling to conventions in different cities every week to sell merchandise. This led him to open his own gaming store, the Camouflage Dragon, in Chattanooga in 1998. He closed the business in 2003 to spend more time at home with his son, who was having medical issues.
For the next 14 years, Lyke worked a variety of customer service jobs, first in Chattanooga and later in Knoxville. His career opportunities were limited by several disabilities, all linked to his military service — hearing loss and tinnitus from working under aircraft, mobility issues due to inoperable knee damage and breathing issues caused by small particulates in his lungs (another hazard of working under aircraft in sandy environments).
Through it all, he never gave up his dream of getting a degree. In 2017, after decades in the workforce, he got his chance.
A Veterans Affairs worker who was helping Lyke with his disability claims told him he qualified for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (VR&E, now the Veteran Readiness and Employment Service), which could help him earn a degree and prepare for careers that would be compatible with not only his disabilities, but also his talents and interests. That fall, when he lost his customer service job, he enrolled full-time as a marketing major at Haslam.
Although the timing worked out well, Lyke had other obstacles to overcome. In addition to his physical disabilities, he had been diagnosed with PTSD and depression, which, combined with being significantly older than most people on campus, made him feel isolated.
“When I started classes at 51, I realized I was literally old enough to be a grandparent to the people in my classes,” he says. “Until the second semester of my junior year, I was 15 to 20 years older than almost all of my professors.”
He found camaraderie at UT’s Veterans Success Center, where he could socialize with other non-traditional students who understood his perspective. Over time, he developed a rapport with Haslam faculty members, including Tim Munyon, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship.
“As a disabled veteran, non-traditional student and parent, Rich has faced many struggles that our traditional students don’t experience,” Munyon says. “However, he is also one of the most proactive and engaged students I’ve encountered at UT, and proof that non-traditional students can thrive in our programs. My class with Rich was significantly enriched by his real-world experiences, positive work ethic and initiative.”
Powered by that work ethic, Lyke has been taking 12 credit hours each summer to stay on track to graduate within four years. When his hearing problems prevented him from detecting subtle pronunciation differences, the foreign language requirement for his degree was waived, which freed up space in his schedule. Rather than filling those hours with electives, he chose to take on a second major, management, with a collateral in entrepreneurship.
“Rich has taught me that you don’t have to be defined by your constraints, and that hard work, initiative and commitment surmount even significant constraints,” Munyon says.
After graduation, Lyke plans to stay in the Knoxville area so his daughter can have more time with her mother’s side of the family. He is looking at project manager, marketing manager and entry-level digital marketing positions. No matter what the future holds, he feels ready to forge his own path as he always has.
“All of my life experience prepared me for being able to do things alone and not needing validation from peers to succeed,” he says. “I would say that ability has been my greatest strength in completing my degrees.”
Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, email@example.com