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Waving into the next chapter

Western Kentucky University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Cheryl Stevens, reflects on people in her life and what’s to follow after stepping out of her position before the Fall 2021 semester.

Stevens, in her WKU office, waves to other attendees as they sign out of a state of Kentucky chief academic officers zoom meeting on Friday, April 23, 2021.

Stevens is stepping out of the Provost position on June 3, 2021 and officially retiring on December 31, 2021. The position is being filled by Robert “Bud” Fischer Jr..

When asked what her time at WKU taught her Stevens said, “It’s a different type of institution than I was at before. Because I was at a small Catholic liberal arts college, and now I’m at a big regional comprehensive that truly serves the region. This university is so important to this community, and to southcentral Kentucky, and it’s actually inspirational to watch that. To see how important it is, how important the footprint is, how important the relationship is between what we do on campus and what happens in the community. Even people who come to WKU because of a particular program, you came here because of its repetition, because it’s not something you can get everywhere. And that’s amazing. It says that our footprint is really broad, impactful beyond just Bowling Green and I think that recognizing that has really taught me about the inner relationships between institutions and people. You know on a practical level I’ve certainly learned how to deal with difficult people, but meh, that’s just a skill. It’s not an understanding of the ways of the world, I think coming here really helped me understand the ways of the world.”

Stevens walks her dog Ruthie across Chestnut street on Thursday, April 15, 2021. “I walk her every morning, and I walk with my friend [Helen] Monday through Friday,” Stevens said. “We go two, two and a half miles depending on where we go.”

Stevens said, “I was pretty high strung as a young person. I’m still goal oriented, I was always goal oriented, but then I would be aggravated if somebody was giving me a hard time or if I couldn’t get something done. And now I have this philosophy that I do the best I can. I do the best I can everyday and then when I’m done, I know I’m done [for] that day. I think those interpersonal relationships are important.”

Stevens reads in her chair after working in the garden on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Stevens relaxes with not just Ruthie (right) but two of her friend’s dogs while she was dog-sitting them.

“By the time I got to college I wanted to be a medical technologist or a physician's assistant. At that point I didn’t aspire to as much as I could have. Really, I should have been thinking doctor, not doctor's assistant. In those days women didn't aspire to the big roles. So to have achieved this is actually huge,” Stevens said.

Before starting as the WKU Acting Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 2019, Stevens had served since 2012 as the Dean of the Ogden College of Science and Engineering, and she has also served since 2015 as the President of the WKU Research Foundation. Before WKU Stevens was the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Associate Dean for Research at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Stevens received a Chemistry BS degree from the University of Tampa and a Chemistry PhD degree from the University of New Orleans.

Stevens works from her home office on Thursday, April 29, 2021.

Stevens holds a framed photo of (from left) Laura McGee, Helen Sterk, Besty Shoenfelt, Dawn Bolton, Julie Ellis, and Cheryl Stevens. The group goes by the name TheSixOfUs.
Stevens holds a framed photo of her family. Stevens and her husband Ed are on the right.
Stevens said her main goal now is to work on building relationships and really focusing on how she treats others and herself. She is currently a part of a book club and gardening club. Stevens said, “After I retire I’m going to make new friends. It’s actually hard, you know, because you make friends at school, you make friends at your job, but here I am retiring and leaving my job and thinking, ‘I’m gonna make new friends, and how am I gonna do that?’ I’m gonna do that through these organizations that I’ve been involved with.”

One of Stevens' groups of friends goes by the name TheSixOfUs. Stevens said, “We always always always celebrate birthdays ... It’s like your family away from home, Julie calls us ‘the family that you’ve chosen’.” Stevens said, “Betsy invited me to her bookclub and through that group one of them invited me to their garden club, and I was the only WKU person there. So I met another group of fourteen, thirteen women in that garden club. And that has been so important to me, and probably one of the reasons that I’m gonna stay here."

Michael “Mike” Cowles (left) and Stevens pick plants at the WKU farm to prepare for planting Stevens’ garden and sprucing up Cowles’ garden.

“When I first met [Mike] was at a WKU football game in Harbaugh Hall, somebody introduced me to him.” Stevens said, “He was new to town, he and his wife moved back here after retiring, built a house, and he wanted to get involved in the WKU community. So I asked him if he would serve on the WKU Research Foundation Board and he said he would. A few months later he told me that he couldn’t come to one of the meetings because he had to take his wife for treatment because she was sick, months later he contacted me and said she was doing better, and that he could start coming to meetings again. I offered to talk to her, just to be like a support person, like a cancer survivor kind of thing. And she and I got to be good friends, then the four of us got to be good friends. Then she had a recurrence. And about the same time as her recurrence, maybe a month later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. And so he was taking her for treatments, I was helping Ed with treatments, we would text all the time. I’d text him, I’d text her, he’d visit Ed, you know, we were friends, we were keeping up. Then she died unexpectedly April 24, 2020. And he died unexpectedly May 6, 2020. We’d been good friends, we’d been good support for each other and spent a lot of time together in those early months. And then, you know ultimately, said we’ve been really good support for each other, maybe we could be good together.

"It’s kind of hard to have that conversation. But you start talking about, thinking about, what’s your life forward going to look like? How do you live your best life? How do you move forward?”

Heavy rains flooded little cups of plants that Stevens had been growing from seeds, worried about overwatering she started dumping the water out on Saturday, April 24, 2021. Stevens said that a few years ago this would have stressed her out, but she’s changed her priorities since then and now focuses on how she treats people and building relationships.

“Who knows what will happen. Hope for the best and if it doesn’t work out, live and learn," Stevens said.

Stevens refills bird feeders in her backyard on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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