Q&A: New CPE student member talks attainability and resiliency in 2020
August 21, 2020
Colby Birkes, a first-year student at the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law, was appointed to the Council on Postsecondary Education this summer. The Winchester native earned his bachelor's degree in political science and legal studies at Morehead State University, where he also served as president of the Student Government Association. Birkes first began working with CPE in 2019 when he chaired the Board of Student Body Presidents.
Well Colby, congrats on your appointment to the Council. You obviously have some great experience in higher education, but what sparked your interest in serving with CPE?
Thanks! When I first started college, I wasn't interested in higher education policy or even aware of CPE. But after joining SGA and seeing the difference you can make, my interest grew from there. I was lucky enough to serve as chair of the Student Body Presidents this past year, and we worked closely with (CPE President Aaron Thompson) and the Council. I just started to notice all the substantial changes that the CPE is making in the lives of so many.
Did any particular issues drive your interest?
I think one of my biggest concerns is attainability. Unfortunately, higher education has become unattainable for many Kentuckians, and for a variety of reasons. For many people, their circumstances are dictating whether to pursue a degree. As an undergrad, I worked on a number of efforts to make higher education more attainable for as many people as possible, and serving on the Council is just a way to continue that work.
That's certainly a priority of the Council, so it's great to have another advocate in the arena. And it sounds like your concerns extend beyond just financial barriers?
Exactly. For example, people with epilepsy often decide not to go to college because they don't feel safe, or their family doesn't feel safe. So my brother, who suffers from epilepsy, and I worked the past two years to make Morehead State the first "seizure smart" college in the country. Faculty, staff, police, RA's and many of the students were trained on what to do if someone has a seizure. We also tried to stress that just because someone has a disability, that doesn't mean it disables them in the classroom.
A lot of people in high school told my brother that he didn't have what it takes to succeed in college, but he earned a spot on the dean's list every semester. So it's important for Kentucky and our institutions to show that we care about people in these circumstances, and we aren't going to let them sink or swim on their own.
That's an incredible accomplishment. Is this the type of issue that piqued your passion for the law as well?
I remember growing up and seeing so many opportunities taken away from my brother. People defined him by that disability even though he could accomplish amazing things. And that injustice made me interested in standing up for people who have faced discrimination or had their hopes taken away. I think that's what really got me into the law, and Morehead fueled my interest even more. The legal studies department there is phenomenal.
You've officially been in law school about a week now. How's it going?
It's been great! I never thought I'd enjoy law school so much. I'm enjoying the classes. I'm enjoying the studying. I'm enjoying just being around classmates who have the same passion. It's been everything I've ever imagined, and Brandeis has been amazing – so have the world-renowned faculty. We are very lucky to have people as respected in their fields teaching at an institution in Kentucky.
That's great to hear, especially given all the challenges in 2020 and the disruptions in education. Can you give me some perspective on how your peers are faring right now?
I can speak to being a student who had his life put on hold. I didn't get to participate in my graduation from undergrad. I didn't get to say goodbye to a lot of friends because we never went back after spring break.
But I've also noticed, especially since starting classes this past week, that 2020 has really opened people's eyes to things they might have taken for granted before. No one is complaining about going to class. People are enjoying the opportunity to learn and socialize. Although it's been very tough on students, I think students have shown resiliency, and often their whole perspective on education has changed. I think they are going to appreciate every moment of it from here on out.
A number of students were on the fence about returning this year. What motivated you to continue school?
A lot of people have been hurt financially, and can't afford to go back. But for students simply choosing not to return, I would encourage them to rethink their plans. Even though this isn't the education they imagined, the experience teaches resiliency and how to succeed despite the circumstances. For me, this is something I always wanted to do. I've always wanted to practice the law; I've always wanted to help people. It was also important for me to continue out of fear that, if I'm willing to push it off now, I might use that as an excuse later on in life as well.
That's a good outlook, and clearly you value education. What is it about higher education that matters most to you?
Personally, it changed a lot of who I am. When I first came into college, I was very immature. I did not know my own abilities. On top of building me into a better man, and building better character, it also helped me believe in myself. That's a pivotal factor – allowing people to realize their abilities and their skills and believe in themselves. And that's going to be something students take with them the rest of their lives. A number of studies have shown that college grads make more money and have more opportunities – that's indisputable. But I also believe the internal benefits are just as important.
Well it sounds like you are doing great, and we are happy to have you join the Council.
Thanks, I look forward to it.
Last Updated: 7/22/2021