A former Dallas firefighter is the May "SPOTlight Student of the Month" at the University of North Texas at Dallas, marking the end of a whirlwind year for the lifelong Dallas-area resident.

Kelly Harris grew up in Seagoville and worked as a construction laborer pouring concrete after graduating from Seagoville High School. He wanted to become a firefighter and needed 45 hours of college credit to apply, so he took night classes at Eastfield Community College and Cedar Valley College. It took him three years to get the required hours, and then it took another year for his firefighter application to go through. He finally became a firefighter at 22.

One year after finishing firefighter rookie school and paramedic training, he got a real estate license and started working in commercial real estate on his off days. He worked for several real estate companies before opening his own company 18 years ago. Along the way Harris and his wife had two daughters, and they bought acreage and moved to Ferris in 1994.

Harris, 52, served as a Dallas fireman and paramedic for 24 years working in almost every fire station in the city. He retired from firefighting on July 18, 2004, to his real estate business and his 137-acre farm where he grows hay and raises cattle. "It's a very interesting life," he says.

Harris had always dreamed of studying law and realized he needed an undergraduate degree to pursue his dream. So one day out of the blue two years ago, he e-mailed UNT Dallas Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Gretchen Choe.

"I just asked her some questions about the university and what's involved in criminal justice. I thought, I'll never hear from her. About 15 minutes later I got this page-long e-mail from her letting me know that, hey, she really cares."

He knew he had a lot of core courses to complete—"I simply had 45 hours for 34 years; everything else was self-taught,"—so he started taking classes again in January 2010. He began taking every course that he could online and at El Centro Community College, Brookhaven College and Eastfield.

He enrolled in his first class at UNT Dallas—Criminal Justice 4870 with former Instructor Jesse Senderson—in May 2010. "I'll never forget, he said we had to do some APA papers. I didn't even know what APA meant. He took me in his office, I bet, five times telling me everything I did wrong with my paper. It was marked to smithereens. He taught me how to do APA, so I'll never forget that. He forced you to learn how to write on the college level."

In August, Harris worked with Professor Choe and other students to start a pre-law society. They started with seven members, and he was elected president. He has put in long hours in leading the society and working to build credibility and stability for the group.

"We've done a lot of good things. We've tried to make it educational and tried to expose people that have an interest in studying law to thing. We've toured the UNT law school. We brought 12 students to the SMU Symposium, and two of them won Kaplan Scholarships for the LSAT prep courses. It was a beautiful thing."

The pre-law society also brought Sen. Royce West and Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to campus. "My main focus is trying to help give back and help others and reach out so everybody can benefit and be successful while simultaneously trying to make some decent grades," Harris says.

On top of his class work and leading the pre-law society, Harris had to deal with another major blow when a tornado tore through their home Sept 8. He was in his home office studying for a test when the tornado ripped the roof off their house. He had just seconds to get his three dogs into a closet. As the tornado blew through, he thought he was going to die.

The damage was extensive to their shop and more water damage to their living area, but it took crews until November to finish repairs. For Harris and his family, who are members of Meadowview Church of Christ, the tornado didn't damage their faith.

"I never asked, 'God, why did this happen?' It's a mystery that I'll never know. Maybe in time it will be revealed, but I can't answer why it hit my house and went back up in the sky," Harris says.

Incredibly, he has completed 89 hours in the past 16 months, and in spite of taking the maximum class load every semester in order to graduate this summer, he has an 'A' average. This spring he took 21 hours, including a six-hour internship at the Dallas County Public Defender's Office.

"My time on my internship at the Dallas County Public Defender's Office has been a fantastic experience that the college has offered and enabled me to grow even more. It's a beautiful component of the criminal justice curriculum."

Semester finals are looming, but Harris hopes to finish the semester with all 'A's. If that happens, he will finish with a 3.8 at UNT Dallas, he said. He needs one more class to graduate that is only offered this summer at UNT in Denton. After graduating in August, he hopes to go to law school and become a criminal defense lawyer. "I don't think I'm cut out to be a prosecutor."

"Coming to UNT Dallas was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It's been a great experience. This is a wonderful place."

The staff and faculty welcomed him with open arms, and several staff helped him make it through college, he said. "Those are the ones that never get the credit, but I'd sure like to commend them for everything they've done for me.

"It was a great experience from the first day of orientation when [former Student Activities Coordinator] John Daniels brought six or eight employees in and told us about the university. John was very helpful in the early days. [Recruitment Specialist] Darien Moore fantastic. I called her probably 15 times when I was trying to get a handle on what I needed to do. She was very patient and returned every call and e-mail."

Choe, who is the pre-law society faculty advisor, also was extremely helpful, and he called Academic Advisor Janeeka Bills "outstanding. She steered me along the way. You walk in there and she's very prepared. She knows what she's talking about and helped me immensely."

Choe says she was impressed with Harris and how he had taken the initiative in leading the pre-law society while remaining humble. She was not at all surprised that he was named student of the month.

"He has proven to be very diligent as a student and a leader, even through adversity," Choe says. "He has an impressive work ethic that will ensure success in all he does."

Pre-Law Society Vice President April Brown said, "Kelly has been a tremendous resource and will be greatly missed from our organization."

Harris's wife has supported him 100 percent, he said, and his daughters are very proud of him. "They know how much I have placed an emphasis on their education." Their daughter Hannah graduates from Ferris High School this month and will enroll at TCU in the fall. Their younger daughter, Ruth, will be a junior next fall at Dallas Christian School. She, too, has aspirations of going to college.

"That's a real accomplishment, as a father, that your children have done well enough to go to college," he says proudly.


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