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Lee Kuykendall is a success. He rose rapidly in the ranks of the Marine Corps. He worked full-time at Dominion Energy while completing his VCU undergraduate degree in 2 ½ years. And this June, he won the Andrew Jaffe Scholarship to the Brandcenter.

Yet there’s no discounting the serendipity factor. When he was so focused on work and school he had time for nothing else, Kuykendall met Morgan Butler, his future wife, at the VCU orientation. And then, when he was searching for just the right master’s degree program, a chance lunch with former professor Bob Kelley led him to apply to the Brandcenter.

Yet Kuykendall thinks failure had something to do with it too. “My advice is to always work harder,” he says. “If you fail, it’s just another path to success. I failed a thousand times for every success. In fact, I dropped out of college, and that was my biggest failure of all. But really, that’s what started everything.”

A Rocky Beginning

“I went to college to play football,” he remembers. “I had no interest in getting a degree.” But after dropping out of school, Kuykendall ended up working in commercial fishing and construction. “I was setting fishing nets at 4 AM and building docks till 6 PM,” he says. “It was obvious I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life.”

So, he enlisted in the Marines. “I really enjoyed their structure and drive. I picked that up. I got promoted fast because I worked harder than other people.” But Kuykendall was still floundering. He deployed twice to Afghanistan, with different units in different locations. In-between, he came back to Virginia. “And that’s one of the reasons I got out. I had no life in either place.”

An Intense Focus

Armed with the GI Bill and an internship at Dominion Energy, Kuykendall started VCU in August of 2015. He graduated in December of 2017 with a marketing degree in product and brand management. His plan was to use the GI Bill’s four-year tuition money to cover both undergraduate and graduate school. But that meant he had to work hard and fast. In 2 ½ years, he averaged 18 credit hours per semester. “My experience wouldn’t have been possible at other schools,” he says. “At VCU, my professors understood I was working 40 hours a week. I liked that we were doing real projects that were related to my work. I was able to pull from both.” 

One of Kuykendall’s big projects on the job was the Dominion Energy Charity Classic golf tournament. “I got a crash course in event planning,” he says. “Most people only see the three days of tournament play, but there is an entire week of events going on behind the scenes. There is a lot more work involved than most people realize.” 

Having learned the value of assistance, Kuykendall then donated golf tournament gift baskets to Angela Bartee for use in the VCU Business Alumni Society Golf Open. Soon after that, he found himself on the society’s golf committee, where his experience proved invaluable. “VCU gave me the opportunities I have now, so I feel obligated to give back in any way possible,” he explains. “It was a no-brainer to say yes when I was asked to be on the committee.”

The Next Stage

Now it’s time to move forward yet again. Kuykendall got married in May and left Dominion Energy in August. He’s already started at the Brandcenter. It will be another intense period of study, but he figures between the scholarship and his remaining GI funds, he’ll be able to pay for his master’s degree. “This will be my first time in school without working,” he says, “but neither I nor my wife have any outstanding college loans, so that’s a good thing.”

And – thanks to the serendipity factor – they’ve just had a nice vacation. Kuykendall can’t wait to tell the story: “When I bought a suit to wear at my wedding, I was entered into a drawing at the store, and I won. Guess what? It was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Masters Tournament! We both went. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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