Getting through college is hard enough, but declining eyesight and temporary blindness made it all the more difficult for Leslie Hammond.
Hammond, 23, from Stamping Ground, is scheduled to graduate Sunday from the University of Kentucky and receive a bachelor's degree in sustainable agriculture. The future she sees now is brighter — literally and figuratively — because a retinal specialist helped her regain her sight, and because Hammond didn't give up on her studies.
Recalling her lowest point, Hammond acknowledged, "I wanted to quit school."
"It was hard to get out of bed sometimes," she said. "I mean, I know this sounds totally like a Lifetime Network movie story, but that's kind of what it felt like. It was a very difficult time.
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"But I got through it and I had an amazing support system that I didn't even realize was there," she said.
Hammond had noticed deterioration in her sight during her senior year at Scott County High School. But in 2008, during her first semester at UK, her vision declined at a frighteningly rapid rate. She compared her vision to that of driving at night in the rain and then having a darkened screen put across the windshield. As a freshman, she began to learn Braille and was given a cane to assist her walks across campus.
"I had always been a super-active person," Hammond said. "You take a person who is used to running all the time and you put a cane in her hand and tell her to get to class ... I became incredibly depressed."
But friends walked with her to class and encouraged her to get out and into social situations. She scheduled classes on campus so they wouldn't be far away from one another.
Her grades were so poor that first semester that her advisers counseled her to "retroactively withdraw," a process in which neither the earned hours nor the grades from a previous semester's courses are counted in a student's overall record.
The process allowed her to start with a clean slate the following semester. In between, during a Christmas break, Hammond went to see a retinal specialist at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. He determined that she did not have glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa, as had been diagnosed. Instead, he found abnormalities with her eyes that affected her vision.
The specialist advised her to stop taking the medicine prescribed for her condition, and, to Hammond's surprise, she began to gradually regain her sight. Nine months later, she felt comfortable driving again.
"I started praying a lot more, too," Hammond said. "I just re-evaluated a lot of things, and I sound like a crazy person, but I believe with everything in me that a whole lot of it was me needing to feel good up here (touching her temple) and here (touching her chest above her heart)."
In the meantime, she took a course on sustainable agriculture. In layman's terms, sustainable agriculture is farming that emphasizes long-term productivity of the land and conservation of resources over short-term gains and higher yields. The holistic approach to agriculture intrigued her.
"Farming shouldn't be a dying art," Hammond said. "It should promote the social welfare. It should be a way to give back to the earth what we have taken from it. It's something that is more environmentally conscious. For something to be sustainable, it has to be economically viable. It can't just run on faith; it has to make money."
A month before graduation, Hammond began a job as a technician with the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. She works on a project involving "compost bedded pack barns," which are designed to keep dairy cows cleaner and more comfortable while reducing the odor and flies in the places where cattle rest.
This has been an area of research for UK, but "we don't do research for the sake of research," Hammond said. "It's something that we can translate to people's lives." In this case, the barns, if properly maintained, can increase a farm's income.
Joseph Taraba, an extension professor in agricultural engineering, said Hammond has displayed a passion for understanding how things work.
"You want a passion in a student because they want to dig deeper and they do things where you don't always have to lead them," Taraba said. "That independence is what you want to see in a person. ...That's what interested me in hiring her."
Not many engineering students take classes on sustainable agriculture, which became available at UK in 2007. But Hammond said "something clicked" for her when she took the course taught by Krista Jacobsen, an associate professor in UK's horticulture department.
"The Leslie that I know is a very dynamic, intelligent young woman with a broad degree of interests and a zeal for life in general," said Jacobsen, who is Hammond's academic adviser.
Hammond, one of six children, credits her parents — her mother, Shari Mounce, and Shari's husband, Jered, and her father, Bill Hammond, and his wife, Melinda — with encouraging her to embark on a career that made her happy.
"I pursued this passion for soil and soil micro-organisms, and that's what floats my boat," she said. "It's landed me a lot of amazing opportunities. I felt intellectually stimulated again."
The University of Kentucky will hold graduation ceremonies Sunday at Rupp Arena. The schedule is:
9 a.m.: Graduate and professional ceremony
1 p.m.: Undergraduate ceremony for the colleges of agriculture, business and economics, education, engineering, and nursing
6 p.m.: Undergraduate ceremony for the colleges of arts and sciences, communication and information, design, fine arts, health sciences, and social work
Here is a schedule of commencement ceremonies at a selection of other Kentucky schools (all times are local):
Bluegrass Community and Technical College: 5 p.m. Sunday, May 12, Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Centre College: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 19, Norton Center for the Arts. Martha Raddatz of ABC News is the speaker.
Eastern Kentucky University: 9 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11, Alumni Coliseum. The 7:30 p.m. ceremony features First Lady Michelle Obama and requires a ticket.
Georgetown College: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Giddings Lawn
Kentucky State University: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Frankfort Convention Center
Morehead State University: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Academic Athletic Center
Murray State University: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, CFSB Center
Northern Kentucky University: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Bank of Kentucky Center
Transylvania University: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 25, Old Morrison Lawn. Actor Steve Zahn is the speaker.
University of Louisville: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, KFC Yum Center
Western Kentucky University: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 11, E.A. Diddle Arena