Student News

CAFE alumna inspired by family to complete her degree

Graduating senior Elizabeth Buckles pictured with her son TJ and husband Tylor
Graduating senior Elizabeth Buckles pictured holding her son TJ
TJ Buckles
Graduating senior Elizabeth Buckles pictured holding her son TJ and husband Tylor

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 18, 2023) —For new University of Kentucky alumna Elizabeth Akers Buckles, consistency has meant change. Those changes, filled with challenges, led Buckles to earn her bachelor’s degree in community and leadership development from the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment this May.

Back in 2016, Buckles was graduating from Lexington Catholic High School and faced with her first challenge — where to go next. The initial decision took her east to Morehead State University. But while studying agricultural economics, Buckles remembered reevaluating the decision, “Am I wasting my time here if this isn’t my passion? Is this really what I want to do forever?”

So, she took a break. But, not for long, because Buckles decided the U.S. Army would be the place to provide her insight and life experience. Being stationed in unfamiliar places around the world and meeting so many new faces impacted her perspective. But, meeting a fellow soldier changed her life permanently. Tylor Buckles worked side-by-side with his now wife, then Elizabeth Akers. In 2019, they both returned home to Kentucky and Buckles knew her next challenge was finding a place to advance her education. 

This time, she had more clarity. Buckles was prepared to expand her passion for community outreach and grow in her leadership skills. She started to pursue her bachelor of science in community & leadership development degree at UK. At the same time, Buckles was presented with an opportunity to operate a business with her father in Lexington. 

Balancing both a professional career and educational goals was a full plate, and she had to add one more element to the balancing game — planning for a wedding! Amid a growing pandemic, she had found a life mate in Tylor, and married her best friend. 

Two years married and halfway to her degree, Buckles faced her greatest challenge yet — motherhood. On March 25, 2021 the couple welcomed their son T.J. Extremely excited to meet his parents, T.J. was born 16 weeks prematurely. Weighing just one pound and nine ounces at birth, he was considered a micro preemie, and was given only an 11% chance of survival. 

“I remember getting into a wheelchair and being taken downstairs from my hospital room to see him in the NICU thinking how different our lives were about to be,” Buckles remembered. 

Still enrolled in class, working with her father and enjoying life as a newlywed, Buckles had to make T.J. her main focus. Her son would go on to stay at the Kentucky Children Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for 250 days. 

“I remember every single day,” Buckles said. “I had a routine where I would wake up and drive the 30-40 minutes to the hospital in the morning to be there before he woke up. I would lay him down for a nap and hook my computer up to do homework and work on classes while hooked to a breast pump.”

When T.J. finally had the opportunity to come home for the first time, his life required unique, round-the-clock care. With a medically fragile child at home, Buckles was faced with caring for her family, while continuing her education. But Buckles was determined to finish her degree.

She was inspired by her son and supported by her husband to finish. 

“T.J. came to class with me,” said Buckles, “I would walk from K lot with him in a medical stroller that included a ventilator, suction machine, oxygen tank, emergency kit, baby bag and my school bag.”

Buckles’ community of family and friends surrounded her with love and support. In particular, one UK faculty member provided help and resources to make sure Buckles would succeed. 

“Dr. Keiko Tanaka has been my biggest advocate since day one that I had my son,” Buckles said. “She has helped me in so many ways to achieve my dream, to become a college graduate. I owe her so much appreciation and gratitude.”

Buckles is now supporting her husband Tylor’s education pursuit. He will become a student in the College of Nursing in this fall. Already a UK employee — working as nurse care technician in the Kentucky Children’s Hospital — Tylor Buckles decided to focus his studies on the care of Kentucky’s children. Inspired by his son’s experience with the staff at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Tylor Buckles hopes to help provide that same positive outcome for others. 

“I plan on becoming a registered nurse and working at Kentucky Children’s Hospital to help other families like us with long-term critical babies,” Tylor said.

After Elizabeth Buckles received her degree this May, she took some time to reflect on everything this university has meant to her over these last few years.

“My life changed significantly for two reasons: coming to UK as a married veteran, living off-campus; and the experience of caring for a medically fragile baby,” said Buckles. “Even though my experience was not traditional, I always felt UK was home. No matter my circumstances, there were people there who wanted to help me succeed. I want my experience to serve as a reminder to anyone that no matter where you are in your life, if you desire to start, resume or finish your degree — IT IS POSSIBLE.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.