A woman holds a child in front of a building with a sign that reads: Simon Kenton High School.

Lyndsay McCullers, a special education teacher at Simon Kenton High School (Kenton County), recently earned her master’s in special education from the University of Kentucky. Shortly after she began the second year of her graduate program, her son, Corbin, was born with Down syndrome, as well as a major heart defect. Photo by Marc Figgins.

Editor’s note: Story provided by the University of Kentucky.

Everyone wants to find their purpose in life, whether that be to become an advocate, an educator or both.

For University of Kentucky (UK) graduate Lyndsay McCullers, a special education teacher at Simon Kenton High School (Kenton County) her passion soon became her reality.

From a young age, McCullers knew special education was her calling.

After graduating in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in special education and middle grades education from a smaller Kentucky institution, McCullers also obtained a certification, in collaboration with the UK College of Education, to teach students with moderate and severe disabilities as part of her undergraduate degree. But she wasn’t done there. A few years later, she enrolled in the College of Education’s nationally-ranked online master’s degree program in special education.

“I wanted to go back to school for my master’s to become a better teacher for my students and ultimately seek a position in school leadership,” McCullers said. “When the opportunity presented itself for me to do this program, I could not pass it up. I knew I was going to get the best education from UK and the professors in my program.”

However, on the night of Aug. 25, 2021, shortly after she began the second year of her graduate program, her life changed in the best, but most unexpected way.

Her son, Corbin, was born with Down syndrome, as well as a major heart defect.

“We did not know Corbin had Down syndrome until he was born, despite having six ultrasounds during my pregnancy,” McCullers said. “Two days after he was born, we also found out that he had a major heart defect that would require open-heart surgery.”

The first few weeks of Corbin’s life were spent in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), followed by medical appointments several days a week.

“While nothing has gone as planned, Corbin is our perfect blessing. We would go through it a million times over for our boy,” McCullers said.

Due to Corbin’s heart defect, McCullers had to take a leave of absence from her studies last year. However, with support from her family — and the online program’s flexibility — she was able to quickly jump back in and return this spring to complete her thesis.

“I had to quickly learn how to manage my time effectively in order to maintain a balance between family, work and school life. I relied on my husband, Brett, and my mom and dad to watch Corbin to allow me to dedicate time to completing my thesis in my last semester of school. I would not have been able to finish the program strong without their help,” McCullers said.

McCullers only has one hope for the future — to be an advocate. And her experience with her own child has made her even more prepared to support her students as well.

“My goals and hopes for my future as a special education teacher are to continue to love every student that comes through my doors and to equip my students with the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully transition into adulthood,” she said. “Corbin has changed my perspective by seeing my job through the eyes of a parent. As a parent, I have gained so much knowledge about resources that are available to Corbin and other children with disabilities that I was not previously aware of.  I now want to do a better job of helping other parents secure these resources for their children as well.”

McCullers is set to graduate Friday with her master’s degree in special education from the UK College of Education’s online program, which is ranked 7th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

Pursuing her degree online allowed her to live away from campus and have the flexibility to continue working full time.

“Even though I was participating 100% online, I never felt like I was a lesser part of the class,” she said. “Instead, my professors ensured I could interact in real-time with them and other students whenever I wanted to give input or ask a question. When there was collaborative work done during classes, I was always included in the groups and served an active role in the discussion and products we developed together in these courses.”

McCullers credits Amy Spriggs, Ph.D., and Melinda Ault, Ph.D., associate professors in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Counselor Education in the College of Education, for shaping both her undergraduate and graduate experience.

“I called both of them the day after Corbin was born to let them know I was going to have to withdraw for the fall semester and finish the program in the spring due to unforeseen medical obstacles we were going to be facing with Corbin, and I will never forget how they responded to me,” she said. “Dr. Ault was so excited after I told her Corbin had Down syndrome. She encouraged me that I was going to be the best advocate for Corbin with the knowledge and skills I have gained from my profession and studies. Dr. Spriggs encouraged me that Corbin has given me a new purpose in life. I was going to be walking in the shoes of both a parent and educator for the first time. She has inspired me to want to help other parents be advocates for their children.”

For more information about the UK College of Education’s Master of Science in Special Education, visit their website.

The UK May 2022 Commencement Ceremonies will took place Friday, May 6, and Saturday, May 7, at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for” three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes’ list of “America’s Best Employers.”  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.