Aaron Thompson grew up as the youngest of nine in Clay County, Kentucky, born to an illiterate father and a mother who had an eighth-grade education.
His family worked as sharecroppers, and Thompson said to call them indigent would be an understatement.
In a household of 11, where he would eventually become a first-generation high school and college graduate, Thompson said both of his parents preached to him the value of education.
He took that lesson to heart and now delivers that sentiment to students around the state as the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
Thompson said his mother talked about how education would teach him how to count his money and read so people couldn’t take things from him, growing up black in a time when segregation was still practiced.
“She came from Alabama, born in 1919,” Thompson said. “She saw Jim Crow laws and saw what happens if you happen to be black and weren’t educated.”
Thompson attended a segregated school until the fourth grade, when it was integrated. He said he considers his early life an adventure to where he is today.
“The idea of what it meant to truly advance yourself in the midst of poverty was a part of an adventure and part of the way I see me trying to make sure we get the wraparound services for all kids, especially those that are poor, disenfranchised, to get what they need,” Thompson said.
He said his elementary and high school experience was a mixed bag. He sorted out the good and the bad teachers and mentors and learned from both.
“I had teachers that really cared about me, that worked with me, and that was both in elementary and high school,” Thompson said. “I had teachers that really were not good people. Not only were they not great teachers, they weren’t good people.”
Thompson made the most out of his high school experience. He said he had good friends, was on the school newspaper staff, became senior class president, and was crowned homecoming king.
During high school, he said no one was discussing options for post-secondary education with him, and he wasn’t even sure what college was.
Thompson said he was still learning how to navigate high school at the time. He said he found the five most intelligent kids in the school and mirrored every activity they did, and joined every organization they joined.
“I call it forced mentoring, and I’m sure they called it stalking,” Thompson said. “But the idea taught me what mentoring meant. It taught me what it means to have my mom say, ‘boy, you hang out with the no goods, you’ll be no good.’ It taught me to seek out good.”
As he progressed through school, Thompson said he wanted to go to college, but at the time, he thought that meant going to school to become a teacher or a lawyer. There was no community around him to tell him how to lay the course for post-secondary education, but he again followed the lead of the five smartest kids in school who were planning on attending college.
“I followed those five kids, right? So, I became friends with all those folks. They were going to go to college,” Thompson said. “So, I really learned from them how to navigate college, and many of those kids had parents who had either gone to college, or they had the assistance of other people they knew that they were qualified to go to college.”
Thompson decided to attend Eastern Kentucky University because his closest friends were going there. His friend Robert went with him to the campus to participate in summer orientation, where he filled out his application to attend school there.
“The idea of getting there was a million miles away,” Thompson said. “Leaving my home county was a million miles away. For me coming from Eastern Kentucky, being poor and black and going to college, this is in a time (1975) colleges were accepting more African Americans, but there was a long time in history where they weren’t. So, it was far more than the 70 miles to get there.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Thompson said. “It was a hot summer, July day, and classes were going to be starting like three weeks from then.”
About three hours into the day, Thompson was asked what he wanted to do, and he said, “I want to go to college,” not understanding that the woman was asking what he wanted to major in. Thompson said no one had ever asked him that question before.
On the spot, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer because they made more money than teachers.
Thompson majored in pre-law and political science; however, he found his true passion in sociology during his junior year at EKU and picked it up as an additional major.
“That’s why it’s important for colleges and high schools to work together to help students know what are things that they think they may be really good at and give them those experiences to really learn from,” Thompson said.
To support himself through school, Thompson said he worked nights at a grocery store and weekends as a waiter at an all-white country club. He graduated from EKU in three and a half years with two majors.
“You don’t have to know where you’re going to know that you’re going somewhere,” Thompson said. “You could just know that you don’t like being where you’re at. That’s enough motivation. That was with me.”
Thompson said he knew he didn’t want to be poor, and that influenced him.
Today, Thompson said students don’t have to hunt and peck for resources for post-secondary education, whether they need help with funding or just sorting through their options.
Part of his work as the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education is to ensure all Kentuckians have an equal opportunity to improve their lives through post-secondary education. He works with Northern Kentucky University and Gateway Community and Technical Colleges to help them improve their access and resources to students.
“I would advise anyone, no matter what field they are in, to find out what their core values are and connect those values with the opportunities that have similar values,” Thompson said. “You never have to worry about whether or not you are going to work because you know it’s not work. It is who you are. That’s the difference between being a professional and someone who just has a job.”
Thompson went on to receive his master’s degree in industrial sociology from the University of Kentucky and then pursued his doctoral degree in sociology from UK, with an emphasis on organizational leadership.