When Kelly Givens arrived at Arkansas Tech University, she knew she wanted to be a teacher but, as a non-traditional student, wasn’t sure what to expect.

“What does this generation know that mine does not?” she said. “Am I ready? Can I keep up?”

Although the college career was new, Givens’ grandfather laid the foundation for a career in education long ago.

“He turned our entire basement into a classroom for me,” Givens said. “He went all out: the desk, chalkboard, everything. I’ve always just wanted to become an educator.”

But her course to the classroom wasn’t a straight shot. Growing up in Chicago, Givens first followed her father onto the racetrack.

“I was racing motorcycles and really pushing the limit,” she said. “I once tested the top speed for a manufacturer, and I got up to, I think 180 mph before the engine shut down. It was good, though, because it just died smoothly and that’s what you want. At that speed you need to just coast back down, or you’ll be in trouble.”

Looking for a fresh start after her father died, Givens moved down to Arkansas where she had spent summers growing up.

“My husband would say his prayers brought me here,” she said. “I just wanted a new beginning, to heal, so Arkansas was good place for me to heal.”

She started pursuing an education degree after her marriage, but a terrible car accident put her school career on hold for seven years while she recovered from a broken neck. Nervous about returning to school with a younger generation, Givens wanted to join a professional organization.

“Education is a field where you can’t do it by yourself,” she said. “You have to take in from different mentors, different colleagues. To me it’s all inclusive; you have to pull from everything.”

A Student AEA chapter member approached her at the education orientation, and she signed up thinking it was a layer of protection for her classroom internships. Looking to get the most from her membership, she attended the Aspiring Educators Conference in Houston with AEA Public Affairs Director Susana O’Daniel.

“I didn’t have a clue what the AEA was about, but I knew that I would need some backing as a professional,” she said. “When I first met [Susana], my first question was, ‘Ok, tell me about this insurance?’ Susana looked at me and said, ‘Oh this is so much more than about insurance.’”

Givens quickly learned what O’Daniel meant. The conference offered a crash course on the vast opportunities available to members, from leadership development to networking, mentorship, and a strong analysis of the issues facing students and educators, Givens said.

“It was just this huge snowball effect; what they were about, what they stood for, all the information,” she said. “It was like a dream come true… It was having a family of educators to support me in my field. It was taking a stand on education.”

The conference, immediately followed by the 2019 NEA Representative Assembly (where thousands of NEA members from across the nation vote on the direction of the association), inspired Givens to make sure more students knew about AEA and its value.

“I promised I would take all that I took in and use it and build on it,” she said. “I started to study what the AEA was about. I started doing my homework. I started seeing what I could do to get more involved.”

AEA President Carol Fleming invited Givens to become the AEA Board of Director’s Student Member, and Givens jumped on the chance. Since then, she’s been working with UniServ Directors to reignite the AEA Aspiring Educators program.

“A lot of students carry the thought that I carried, ‘What is this? It’s just insurance?’” she said. “I want them to step away from that.”

She has been visiting different colleges around the state to talk with students about how they can use their membership to bolster their education and help prepare them for the classroom.

“College students look at things like, ‘Hey, can I use this? If I can’t use it, I don’t need it,’” she said. “We look at the different things you put on tables when you set up, or the different things we go to, the different events how can it benefit me NOW. And that’s what I want them to see, that this benefits you now. This is not something that you need to wait until you’re a teacher.”

Givens just completed an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education, and she’s continuing at ATU in the school’s new Child Development program, a non-traditional way to obtain a certification for teaching while also learning how to design curriculum and children’s developmental toys.

“I’ve interned at different levels: pre-school, 1st grade, kindergarten and even high school,” Givens said. “You see just different experiences with children, and they are absolutely amazing, in how they learn and how they take it all in.”

She said returning to the classroom has been hard, but also a wonderful experience, and she credits AEA with giving her strong leadership skills and the confidence to raise her voice.

“AEA has opened doors to me that kind of put that what I’ve missed [following the accident], they’ve given that back to me,” she said. “To come back from all of that, and to be a part of an organization that cares as much as I do about my future, it’s been beautiful and I couldn’t ask for a better chapter of my life than the one I’m having now… It’s more than an organization to me, it means family.”

While she continues her coursework, she’s also planning to continue building the foundation for a stronger statewide Aspiring Educator program.

“For all those that are going into education, you need this,” she said. “This organization works, this organization is here for you, and it provides just mind-blowing experiences. You’re not just sent a card. You’re not just a number. You’re an actual person in your profession, where people are respected and there’s just too much wisdom to pass that up.”