A gradual descent into blindness nearly derailed Kristen Eyring Cox (BS ’95) during her years at BYU, but today her loss of sight is merely one of many characteristics that describe Utah’s executive director for the Department of Workforce Services.
The mother of two began losing her eyesight when she was 11 years old due to a rare recessive trait. In terms of grappling with her blindness, Cox says some of her toughest years fell during her time at BYU. “My vision really declined in my 20s,” she explains. “I hadn’t learned Braille, so I was trying to do everything through memorization. It was a time of real transition.”
Several factors, including a motivational BYU professor, Thomas E. (Ted) Lyon, inspired Cox to serve a mission, a decision that changed her life’s direction. While serving in Brazil, Cox learned to rely on readers and other alternative techniques to gain information. “When I returned home, I wanted to apply the lessons I had learned in Brazil to the real world. I started teaching at the MTC and decided that I wanted to go into teaching.”
Cox began her studies in special education and meanwhile met her husband, Randy, at a leadership seminar. After graduating in 1995 she worked as a special-education teacher and a substitute teacher in Provo until the birth of their first son, Tanner. She wasn’t at home long before the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sought her involvement, which led to her appointment as president of the NFB’s Utah chapter. Her career path would soon take an exciting and unexpected turn.
In 1998 she was asked to go to the NFB’s national headquarters in Baltimore to head up efforts on Capitol Hill as the assistant director of governmental affairs. “We asked ourselves, ‘Why not?’ So with our 3-year-old, Randy and I loaded a U-Haul and set up shop in Baltimore,” Cox says.
After Cox spent three years in that role, the Bush Administration approached her about working for the U.S. Department of Education. She agreed, becoming the special assistant to the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration until 2003. In that capacity Cox helped develop national initiatives to promote the employment and independence of individuals with disabilities.
In 2003 Cox joined the administration of longtime friend and then–Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich as director of the Office for Individuals with Disabilities. In 2004 she became secretary for Maryland’s new Department of Disabilities, the first such cabinet-level post in the nation. When Governor Ehrlich came up for reelection in 2006, he asked Cox to be his lieutenant governor candidate. Though they would end up losing the campaign, Cox calls it a wonderful experience in which she learned much. “I met amazing people,” she says, “and I gained exposure to a variety of really important issues.”
Cox had multiple job offers following the campaign, and while preparing to make a decision, she flew to Utah for a vacation. The night she arrived Cox received a call from Governor Jon Huntsman’s office. She met with him the following day and soon after was offered a position as the executive director for the Department of Workforce Services in Utah, which she accepted.
Jumping from special education to a career in politics was not in her plans, but Cox says that planning ahead rarely works for her. “I think if you work really hard, have good intentions, and do the best you can with integrity, then opportunities just come up.”