By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Come Friday afternoon, Layce Mayhew will officially be a college graduate.
She’s receiving a bachelor’s degree in family science with a minor in behavioral and mental health during the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s winter commencement.
It’s a major accomplishment for the Wood River resident, who’s justifiably proud and equally grateful.
“I never thought I’d be here right now,” she said. “I can tell you that. I never thought I would be in college, let alone graduate. So it’s kind of a huge moment.”
The people closest to Mayhew will give her all the credit. She’s determined, resilient, confident and caring.
But Mayhew knows none of this would be possible without the support she received from her family, husband Nathan and two amazing women.
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
Raised by a single father, Mayhew didn’t have an idyllic childhood.
Her family had their share of hardships, and that impacted her outlook.
“I really struggled in middle school and high school,” Mayhew said. “I felt like I had no potential.”
Becca Moore, then the school counselor and clinical mental health counselor at Wood River Rural Schools, saw things much differently. She believed Mayhew had a bright future.
Moore encouraged Mayhew to dream big and use her abilities to make a positive impact on the world. When the time came, she took Mayhew on campus visits and helped her apply for scholarships and college admission.
“I relied on her a lot when it came to college questions, because my parents didn’t know,” said Mayhew, who received the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship awarded to Nebraska students with a financial need.
She enrolled at UNK in fall 2019 as a first-generation college student.
“I saw my family struggle a lot and knew that I wanted to help people,” she said, “and the only way I could do that is to get an education. Higher education puts you above the standard and gives you an opportunity to better yourself.”
Mayhew felt an immediate connection at UNK, where she was part of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community (TSLC).
Available to all recipients of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship, TSLC provides academic and social support during the transition to college. Thompson Scholars live together, take classes together and attend the same community events. They also receive guidance and assistance from TSLC staff and peer mentors.
“It’s a really great program,” Mayhew said. “They help you throughout your entire education. You have someone there for you all the time, no matter what.”
This was especially important when students moved off campus during the COVID-19 pandemic and in-person classes were shifted online.
“That was really hard,” said Mayhew, a people person who thrives on face-to-face interactions. “It shook me to my core. If it wasn’t for the Thompson Scholars Community, I probably wouldn’t be graduating right now. I really struggled my sophomore year, to the point where I was going to drop out.”
Once again, Mayhew found the inspiration she needed to keep moving forward. This time, it came from “Mama Jen” – TSLC Director Jen Harvey.
“Layce understands the power of mentoring,” Harvey said. “She has people in her life from before college that she continues to utilize as powerful mentors. When she struggled in college, especially when the pandemic hit when she was a freshman, she stayed connected with faculty and staff mentors who helped her to see her gifts and her ability to carry on as a student.
“Layce also has a strong sense of determination that has helped her reach her goal of earning a degree. Her story is very representative of our community in that having the right supports can help students be successful so long as they do the work it takes to finish.”
With support and encouragement from Harvey and Moore, along with numerous UNK faculty members, Mayhew was able to complete her coursework while working full time and balancing other responsibilities.
She got married in March 2022 and landed a position with Saint Francis Ministries in Grand Island after attending a career fair on campus. That organization provides a variety of services that support Nebraska families and children.
Mayhew and her husband are also volunteer firefighters with Wood River Fire and Rescue. He serves as fire chief and she started a cadet program that introduces high schoolers to firefighting in their community.
“There’s a huge need for volunteer firefighters, especially in rural Nebraska,” said Mayhew, who wants cadets to gain leadership skills and a sense of purpose through the program.
Now a counseling instructor and clinical supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Moore isn’t surprised to see Mayhew giving back in so many ways.
“Layce is determined. She sets her mind to something and she is going to take whatever steps necessary to accomplish her goals,” Moore said. “Layce is also kind and caring. She wants to help others and wants to be there for others in some of their worst moments. As a volunteer firefighter, she has to deal with a lot of trauma and loss. Although it isn’t easy, it’s important to her to be there and to help and provide comfort, and I think that says a lot about her character and her desire to help others.”
Although her bachelor’s degree is complete, Mayhew isn’t done learning.
She’ll begin the master’s program in clinical mental health counseling at UNK in January. As a professional counselor, she wants to provide the same support and guidance she received as a teenager, starting with this message to other TSLC students:
“Don’t sell yourself short. It might be hard, but there are so many supports in that community that will help you thrive. You just gotta trust them a little bit. Give them a little piece of your heart and they will let it grow.”
Fortunately, Mayhew has a lot of heart to share.
“I can really see Layce working with clients who have experienced trauma and crisis because I think that she will be able to help them make sense of the adversities that they have faced and help them to take the negative and turn it into something beautiful,” Moore said. “I think she is going to be able to connect with a lot of different people and that impact is going to be profound.”
Harvey shared the same sentiments.
“I believe Layce will have an impact on many youth and their families as a mental health professional,” she said. “Life has taught her a great deal, and she will help others understand their worth and boundaries because of the work she has done. I am so proud of her for beginning graduate school this spring and for her commitment to build a life in rural Nebraska serving others.”