MURRAY, Ky. — Students who attend Murray State University come from almost 60 countries around the globe — but not many of those students can say they were the first from their home country to attend the University. One alumnus, however, holds the unique distinction of being Murray State’s first Canadian graduate and one of the earliest international students to earn a degree here. Roman Odwazny of Winnipeg, Manitoba graduated in 1967 and will be returning to campus for his Golden Reunion this October.
Times have changed since the University’s previous incarnation as Murray State College, but Odwazny still fondly remembers the institution for giving him a second chance at finishing his higher education. In the grander scheme, he also credits Murray State for equipping him with the tools for a long and successful run in career counselling and international educational consulting.
Odwanzy was born during World War II in Winnipeg, Canada’s “Gateway to the West,” situated roughly 1,200 miles north of Murray in the vast prairies that were settled largely by hardy pioneers from Central and Eastern Europe. His parents were working-class Polish Catholics, and his father earned his living as a steel worker in a time and place that demanded strong reserves of fortitude. Most of his peers from the area followed their relatives into the local building trades or worked as unskilled laborers, making Odwazny something of an anomaly for pursuing higher education to the completion of a doctorate. The family had a branch in Milwaukee, and Odwazny counts winning a trip to Chicago at age 10 as an outstanding newspaper carrier among his favorite childhood memories, so the United States never felt truly foreign for the young Canadian well before his studies took him south of the border.
Odwazny first enrolled at a local institution, St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, at the age of 16, but he found it to be a learning environment that put up unnecessary obstacles to his student success. The Jesuit-run institution was then transitioning from its original role as a small, independent college to an affiliate of the province’s flagship university, but it still operated on a stodgy and punitive British model. This model incorporated high-stakes final exams counting for 100% of course grades as well as a policy of denying any credit to a student who failed too many courses in a given semester. The pressure of having a year’s worth of work ride on single exam, then having to write five of them within a two-and-a-half-day period, led to an extremely high failure rate, particularly for students with non-academic obligations. For Odwazny, getting tripped up by math, physics and French meant losing credit for humanities offerings in which he achieved first-rate results.
“It was unreal,” he said. “You go to school for eight months and then you write a three-hour exam. Assignments and term work meant nothing.” After being put on academic probation for a year and told to take summer credits before reapplying, Odwazny mulled a big change. “I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going where I can succeed. And Murray gave me a second chance.”
After deciding to try the American system, there were very specific and practical reasons why Odwazny wound up at Murray State. He was on his own when it came to covering the cost of his education and calculated that he could earn roughly $900 working each summer. There were good schools much closer to home in Minnesota and North Dakota that were simply beyond his means, while the bill for non-resident tuition, housing and meals as a Murray State undergraduate in 1963 came to the economical total of $870. The other main factor that drew him here was Murray State’s willingness to bet on his ability to succeed in a new environment, offering him full credit for the 54 semester hours he’d already completed at the University of Manitoba.
Odwazny counts joining Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, various campus activities and the lifelong friendships he made with students and staff, many of whom he recalls vividly, among his favorite memories of his time in Murray. After graduation, he continued to show off his Racer pride by serving legendary football and track-and-field coach Bill Furgerson as a volunteer Murray State Ambassador in Canada for a decade.
“Canadian parents, especially in the 1960s, were concerned about a Murray State degree being accepted for employment in Canada,” he said. “My Murray State degrees and Canadian career success promoted many discussions with the parents, helping them to consider sending their scholarship candidates to Murray State. I really enjoyed my ten years as a Murray State ambassador and recruiting several Canadian scholarship athletes to Murray.”
Odwazny left Murray with a B.A. in History and English along with a K-12 Education Certificate (1966) and a M.A. in Education Counseling (1968), building blocks that set him up for a fruitful career that has spanned half a century. He returned home to Winnipeg in 1968, but continued to upgrade his skills over the years, picking up a bevy of professional certifications in both Canada and the United States as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees in Student Services, Special Education and an Ed.D in Counseling and Psychology from Western Colorado University in 1978. He founded his company, Career Development Services Inc., in 1977, specializing in career psychology, retirement transitioning and human resources training and development. The concept of human resources was relatively new when Odwazny started his business 40 years ago, creating an opportunity to fill a market niche for a variety of counselling services.
In more recent years many larger companies have taken to handling HR internally, so Odwazny has taken the company in a new direction that plays on his past experience as a high school and university counsellor.
“I’m on a new mission now to get these companies that have employee assistance programs to realize that their [employees’] high school children need some help in career planning so that when they get their diploma in grade 12 and leave school, they know where they’re going, or at least they had an idea how to figure out where they want to go,” he said.
Odwazny’s work has been rich and varied, including 34 rewarding years as a counsellor at a high school and another four at the University of Winnipeg, in addition to building his own company. Though now “pretty well retired,” Odwazny has taught counseling and human resources/psychology at a dozen universities and colleges in Canada, the United States and Sweden, and his business has taken him across North America, Europe, South Africa and Southeast Asia.
The Golden Reunion at Murray State has special significance for Odwazny and his wife, Carol Ann, beyond marking the undergraduate degree he earned in 1966 and master’s in 1968; it’s also their golden wedding anniversary year. After Odwanzy married his bride on August 19, 1967, the young couple set off on their honeymoon, which happened to be in Murray just before the new school year began. This year they’ll be making their third, and probably final, visit to the campus they’ve credited for the professional success and personal happiness they’ve enjoyed ever since.