Like a rubber ball bouncing off the walls of an enclosed room, things have a way of coming back into play for Kevin Hayes.
While he was enrolled as a student at Northern Arizona University, where he has worked for more than 20 years in the information technology department, he was able to further pursue two childhood pleasures: computers and racquetball.
This week, he will be walking with the graduating class of 2019 as the recipient of a Gold Axe Award for outstanding seniors and a bachelor’s degree in computer information technology from the program he helped create.
Hayes not only developed but acted as a test subject for NAU’s Personalized Learning program, an online learning option that allows students to subscribe to six-month periods where they can take as many credits as they want. Instead of completing courses, though, these students progress through competencies that build up to form a degree.
For years, Hayes said he wanted to get his degree, but he had trouble finding an option that worked with his schedule as a full-time employee, husband and father of two. As he was building the Personalized Learning program, though, he was drawn to its potential.
“I thought to myself that I would look back at my life at 70 and regret not at least attempting to get a degree in a program that I helped build,” he said.
Though Hayes completed his studies after a full day of work, often during his daughter’s figure skating lessons or his son’s football practices, he was considered a full-time student, giving him access to all the perks held by on-campus undergraduates, including the chance to play on a racquetball club he revived.
Hayes started playing racquetball with his father when he was in eighth grade, and it became a lunchtime activity when he started working at NAU.
During his first year as a student, when an international student approached him about competing in racquetball for the university, Hayes helped reinstate the club, which had disappeared when students no longer requested it.
All it took was a bit of paperwork and six interested students.
“I called [Personalized Learning], and said, ‘I’m a student, right?’” he said.
Once the club started, Hayes led the group and competed for NAU for three years; he once ranked third in his category at the National Intercollegiate Racquetball Championships.
Hayes said racquetball allowed him to complete his degree in just over five years. Without it, he said it would have taken much longer.
“With Personalized Learning, there were no due dates. That’s a blessing and a curse because, if nothing’s due, I don’t have to finish. I think one of the reasons I was able to stay full time was because I couldn’t lead the racquetball club if I was not a full-time student,” he said.
He also took advantage of his full-time status by participating twice in the Samuel Larue Finley Humorous Writing Contest, hosted by the School of Communication. In the 2016-17 competition, he won an honor prize for his short story; this year his submission won the $500 grand prize.
He attributes his creative success to the same all-in attitude that has defined a career that started not with computers, but with parlor tricks.
Like racquetball, his father also introduced him to computers (“the family business”) when he was young, teaching him how to operate and build them. When Hayes graduated from high school, though, he chose to pursue magic instead of computers.
“I’m not one to dip my toe, I jump in. That was something I learned from magic,” he said. “It was funny that computers were my hobby and magic was my job.”
For almost 10 years, he used magic tricks to teach traffic safety at daycare centers along the east coast, all the while hauling a full-size computer around in the trunk of his car, long before laptops made such a feat common.
Using this computer, he started to develop digitized databases of contact information, a skill that he continues to use in his position at NAU.
When magic became unsustainable, Hayes jumped into a career centered on computers, his longtime hobby. In 1998, he moved to Flagstaff to be closer to family, who had moved west years earlier, and found his home here.
“I love Flag. I love NAU,” he said. “I love the fact that you play racquetball with your dentist and you know everyone at restaurants. I joke that you walk to your car and have to wave to nine people on the way there because of this small-town place.”
Hayes plans to stay involved with the NAU racquetball team as a mentor and said he is looking forward to seeing his name under the alumni category of the databases he works with every day.