KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Dry grass, scorched by the heat of an East Tennessee springtime sun, crunched under Kishia Ruiz's feet as she walked through the campus of Knoxville College.
"Like, what happened? It's like a ghost town," she wondered. "It's just sad to see a campus with a history be in this state. Why would they let this campus get like this?"
The historically black college has a storied history and was originally founded in 1875 to promote leadership among freed men and women. It went on to graduate notable individuals including Mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, Johnny Ford, Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither, actor Palmer Williams, Jr., and Edith Irby Jones, the first female president of the National Medical Association.
The rich foundation built on success from the past started to crumble in 1997 when Knoxville College lost accreditation. Then, enrollment dropped, buildings were boarded up, and classes were finally suspended in 2015. But four years later, when the school reopened in 2019 offering online courses, Kishia caught wind from the East Coast.
"When I did a search of Historically Black Colleges and Universities it came up Knoxville College had been closed but then it said open. Then when it says online classes being offered, I said, 'Well here’s my chance to go to an HBCU!'" Kishia recalled.
Kishia already had a masters degree, but she enrolled in online courses at Knoxville College to help earn a Phd. She never laid eyes on the campus until May 18, 2019.
On that day, if you listened closely enough, you could hear the faint tune of life returning to the halls of a campus that had mostly remained silent.
Bows clung to a newly restored McMillan Chapel, music emanated from inside, and a slow trickle of smartly dressed people began to enter.
Kishia combed her hair, donned a cap and gown, and scurried towards the building, "I'm coming! Here I come!"
Once inside the chapel, Doctor Michael Bowie, Board Chairman for Knoxville College, addressed Kishia and the crowd, "As you know, you will go on the record as the graduate who will open a new era for Knoxville College."
The graduating class of 2019 wasn't big at all. In fact, Kishia Ruiz was the only graduate. Just her. No one else.
"I'm the only graduate. I'm the only one, ha! I'm the only graduate so today's my day!" Kishia exclaimed.
A college historian announced it wasn't the first time the college graduated just one person, "It is an unusual commencement with only one graduate but that is not unique at this institution. We had only one graduate in 1885, 1887, 1891, 1895 and 1900."
Interim President Doctor Keith Lindsey recognized the importance of Kishia's enrollment, "As the college continues to improve, this commencement is a great milestone to mark our progress."
Then, the graduating class of one walked across the stage, received a diploma for an Associate of Arts degree, and moved her tassel from left to right.
"This is one of my legacies. I was the first graduate in four years since the college reopened to graduate, so I’ll always have that for myself," said Kishia.
Dr. Lindsey told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that he credits Kishia for drawing dozens of new and hopeful students to the school. He said Knoxville College expected to add another graduate in the Spring of 2020.
As Kishia entered her 50's and Knoxville College embarked on another year, she said both are learning something about age, "You’re never too old to grow and you’re never too old to continue the adventure...Never too old to grow."
Following the May graduation, Knoxville College announced it would offer free tuition to students who qualified, "We are trying to educate all who desire to learn and receive a quality education from a historic institution of higher learning."
Dr. Lindsey said that offer was still on the table for 2020.