Our Commitment to Service is Changing Lives and Changing Kentucky

photo of students dancing

The following op-ed appeared in several regional newspapers throughout the last two weeks of February 2018. 

On a recent Sunday night, nearly 1,000 bone-tired UK students cheered with unrestrained joy on the floor of Memorial Coliseum as a special number was revealed.

More than $1.8 million was raised through their efforts in support of Kentucky Children’s Hospital DanceBlue Pediatric Oncology Clinic. In only 13 years of the DanceBlue Dance Marathon – a 24-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping event – more than $13 million has been raised to defeat childhood cancer.

DanceBlue is one example of the enduring set of values that guides our work. It represents a powerful answer to the question we continually ask of ourselves and our students: “Why are we here?”

We speak often about the differentiated educational experience we provide. And we promote the dramatic discoveries we make to reduce and prevent cancer, heart disease and drug abuse.

But service, too, is part of our mission. DanceBlue is a powerful example – one of many – of how our commitment to service is changing lives and changing Kentucky.

You see that commitment most significantly in our students. In 2015, Shane Allen, from Clay County, became the first in his family to earn a college degree. Now, Shane is working toward earning his Doctor of Physical Therapy – the first in his hometown. Shane knows the importance of education, not only for him, but for the small town he intends to one day help and heal. Shane is a Robinson Scholar. That program – along with other UK scholarship programs – supports thousands of students from across Kentucky, so they can earn degrees and have the opportunity to lead and serve.

Shane represents tomorrow’s workforce and the skills we are helping students develop. But we’re also collaborating with state government and the private sector to make sure that workforce has 21st century jobs it can look to following graduation. 

Most recently, our College of Engineering and UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research played an important role in the workforce and economic pipeline that led EnerBlu to Kentucky. EnerBlu is a high-tech energy company making a $400 million investment and bringing nearly 1,000 jobs to Pikeville and Lexington.

Student success and workforce development is a critical part of our “why,” but it isn’t the only way we support Kentucky’s economy.

UK serves the Commonwealth’s $45 billion agriculture economy through regulatory services that monitor, analyze and ensure quality in everything from fertilizer to food products.

In 2017, the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment issued stop-sale orders on more than 200 fertilizer samples containing additives harmful to home gardens, farms and pet food.

Animal medications were analyzed in meat and egg products. Every glass of milk on kitchen tables across Kentucky passed through the milk and cream handling systems monitored by UK.

UK’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory works with state and federal partners to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases like High Path Avian Flu, or Mad Cow Disease. These services are essential for producers, farmers, families and consumers in all 120 counties. 

And across those 120 counties, we are painfully aware of Kentucky’s incidence rates of cancer, heart disease, obesity and opioid abuse.  Colorectal cancer incidence rates have declined by 25 percent in Kentucky in less than 10 years. Death rates have dropped by 30 percent. One of the reasons is the increase in screenings, led by University of Kentucky researchers. With 15,000 tests annually, the Commonwealth has the largest ovarian cancer screening program in the country, with UK as its provider and partner.

UK also partners with the University of Louisville on lung cancer research. Basic scientific research is at the cornerstone of each innovative step and – led by UK – it is leaving an impact across Kentucky.

A brighter future for Kentucky will require a number of innovations and interventions, working in concert with one another. A sustainable tax code that grows with the economy and a pension system built to last long term are two pillars, to be sure. But, so too, is home-grown talent, made workforce-ready through education; a healthier population free from disease; and a strong commitment to research and development that enables us to both create ideas and assemble them. 

As Kentucky’s university, we play a critical role in all of those areas. As I watched 1,000 of our students recently raise funds to fight pediatric cancer, I was struck by their pure joy, not only at what they had done, working together; I was struck by their belief that anything is possible, including ensuring that Kentucky’s children don’t have to face cancer.

Anything is possible for Kentucky. Our students are teaching us that lesson, reminding us that we must act.