Ashley Huckaby May was fueled by a desire to finish what she started when she enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Strategic Communication with Social Media Management certification online program at Arkansas State University.
"I don't think it surprised anyone who knows me," she said. "It was a chapter I had always planned to close in my life. They say everything happens when it is supposed to."
May started a bachelor's degree program in literature on campus at A-State in 2003. Her late father, Curt Huckaby, instituted the rugby program at the university, while her brother, Matt Huckaby, is now executive director of Student Health and Wellness.
"When I was young, I needed to get my wiggles out," May said. "I moved all over the place, had some fun and wasn't ready to be a student. The decision to finish my degree has really fallen in line with maintaining focus on my career."
That's an understatement. In May 2019, she was named interim CEO of the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce in Oregon.
"I realized that for me to continue to excel in my profession, the bachelor's degree was an important piece," she said. "I have always been interested in communications and pursued accreditations. I love to learn."
Being able to apply previous credits at A-State made the decision to return to college that much easier for May. She also looked into online programs at Portland State University and Oregon State University.
"When I learned Arkansas State's online program had grown and was offering degrees such as communications, it was a no-brainer for me," she said. "The program has expanded my skills and how I think about strategic communication in our organization."
The Road Home
May was born in Arkansas, where she lived until she was 12 years old. When her parents divorced, she moved to the west coast with her mother. She graduated with an associate degree from Mt. Hood Community College in 2003 before moving back home to attend A-State.
"I worked in the event planning industry for years and was a wedding planner," May said. "I moved back to Oregon after 12 years of being away. The chamber of commerce was my door into working with the community and nonprofit work. I had no idea what I was getting into."
After starting as an events assistant in 2013, May worked her way up to events coordinator, director of events, vice president of events and programs, vice president and, now, interim CEO.
"I produced really large festivals and events for our community for a few years," she said. "I am the kind of person who has a lot of drive and interest. I wanted to integrate into the chamber more — not just in an events role. I really enjoy working in nonprofit."
May and her husband, Steve, have a daughter, Peri (5), and are expecting their second child in September 2019. Steve also has a son, Austin (25). Balancing school with work and being a mother was tough for May when she initially took two classes per term.
"Once I started taking one class at a time, which I would suggest for anybody who has a full-time job, I learned so much by being able to focus on that one class," she said. "Now, I spend between six and 10 hours per week on school. It is working out well."
As May was being named interim CEO, she learned that she won a Prism Award for interactive social media from the Public Relations Society of America Arkansas. The accolade was for an assignment that involved writing a blog for a tire company.
"It was a fun exercise that had nothing to do with my organization," she said. "It was an assignment that said, 'You work for a tire company. You need to write a blog that reaches out to customers, but you can't mention products or prices.'
"I got to practice some of my writing skills, have fun with it and be cheeky, which is something I don't always get to do in a professional setting."
May didn't even know she had been nominated for the award by the communications department at A-State.
"I thought, 'This is really cool,'" she said. "Sometimes when you are an online student and school isn't the primary piece of your life, you don't necessarily give yourself the time or the recognition you deserve, and other people don't see the time and effort you put into it. So, winning the award was validating and rewarding. It was a nice surprise."
So far, PRAD 3043: Principles of Strategic Communication, taught by Dr. Holly Hall, is May's favorite course in the online BS in Strategic Communication program curriculum.
"That course is so applicable to the work I do in nonprofit, working with boards and community partners," she said. "The strategy within organizational communication was enlightening. Communication is a subject that I nerd out on. I have enjoyed every class I have taken from Dr. Hall."
May is on track to graduate in December 2020. She is excited about continuing to learn more as she transitions into her new role at work.
"This opportunity will guide a lot of my career path in the future," she said. "I wanted to be in a CEO role. Now, I get to experience it and see what I want to do in the future. I will definitely stay in nonprofit. My passion is in art and wellness in the community. Whether or not the chamber of commerce industry is where I stay forever, it will definitely be organizational work."
For May, being a good role model for her stepson is an added bonus to returning to school.
"It's been a really cool experience with Austin, who is trying to figure out what to do with his life," she said. "Seeing the dedication it takes to get a degree and work at the same time motivated him to finish up his degree."
Now that May is on the highway to completing a bachelor's degree by balancing school with her job and home life, she is thrilled she came full circle at A-State.
"There is a lot to learn in the program," she said. "Sometimes you can power through as an online student and not necessarily pay attention to all of the information that is there. Once I slowed down and took one class at a time, I saw way more value in the program than I did when I was trying to power through it. It's quality over quantity.
"So much of what I learned is so applicable. There are concepts I had already learned within the work I do, but now there is a theory name for it. It has been a cohesive journey with my work path and my work as a student."
A little drive goes a long way.