Student News

'Nothing worth having is easy' — UK employee celebrates 10-year journey to degree


LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 5, 2023) — Celebrating persistence is the essence of graduation season. Though, for one May 2023 graduate, the sentiment spans far beyond.

On May 5, after a decade of part-time coursework while employed full-time in University of Kentucky Facilities Management, Caroline Ellis will finally receive her bachelor’s degree. The journey, as she tells it, began with a few serendipitous connections and continued with many words of encouragement.

“I started working in UK Custodial Services as an adapting single mom trying to make ends meet,” said Ellis, who quickly bonded with her Haitian coworkers over prior service experience in Haiti.

Within a year, Ellis was promoted, and her connections continued to flourish. While helping new students in a UK residence hall, one particular connection was Ellis' tipping point.

“One morning I was moving in students, and I met a hall director, Mel Lesch," Ellis said. "We got to know each other’s story and become friends. Turns out she was two years younger than me and already had two master’s degrees! Mel really encouraged me to go to school, and I thought to myself ‘Wow. Coming from her? Game changer. Maybe I can do this.’”

So, she did. 

Shortly after beginning the UK Employee Education Program, an academic advisor connected Ellis’ passion for social service to the Department of Community Leadership and Development (CLD) where she quickly made an impression.

“Everybody knows Caroline. All the CLD faculty feel so lucky when we get to have her in class, and I know our students say the same thing,” said Keiko Tanka, CLD director of undergraduate studies. “The way she encourages other students is like a big sister or mom. She embodies exactly what this program is all about — community.”

Ellis, whose reputation earned her the department’s “Spirit Award,” also finds time to serve several Lexington nonprofits including Natalie’s Sisters, an organization supporting survivors of sexual violence.   

“Her connection to community on and off campus is extensive, and she is just so full of life,” said Bryan Hains, CLD professor and UK Community Innovation Lab director. “She is an icon in our program not just because she’s a stellar student, but also because she is so willing share her story, and her openness inspires others to do the same … it’s an honor to be a part of her journey.”

Ellis’ journey also included a week in Scotland where she accompanied faculty members Bryan and Kristina Hains on their leadership study abroad program. To participate, she used vacation time but saved money by earning the department’s W. Norris Duvall Scholarship.

Recently, Ellis also earned a new job in the UK College of Medicine where she supports international exchange visitors and immigration processing — a role well suited to her passion and work. 

“I have always taken pride in my work. I even used to tell people, ‘If I’m going clean this toilet, I’m going to do it so well you could eat your lunch in here,’” she said. “Because I want people to see that my work is good.” 

Good work, indeed. So good, in fact, Ellis will graduate summa cum laude in recognition of her outstanding grade-point average.

“I always tell my kids, nothing worth having is easy,” she added. “I did this for myself, but it’s a little overwhelming that it’s actually going to happen with this beautiful array of people around me. How blessed am I?'"

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.