Campus News

Alumna Creates CARES Support Fund to Benefit Underrepresented Students

photo of Toni Thomas with student
Toni Thomas (left), director for UK's Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services (CARES), talks with a student. A new support fund created by UK alumna Mary deGraaf will support students and programming in CARES. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 12, 2019) — As the University of Kentucky commemorates 70 years of integration on campus this year, alumni and friends are also finding ways to contribute to the university's ongoing commitment to inclusive excellence.

One of these alumni is Mary deGraaf, who has devoted much of her life to volunteering and nonprofit work. She also recently participated in UK's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's (OLLI) Hope and History Civil Rights study/travel group. She said that experience, among others, inspired her to create a fund that would support UK's Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services (CARES), a division of UK's Office for Institutional Diversity aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates of underrepresented students.

After providing initial funding, deGraaf and her husband provided matching funds to encourage others to give.

"We both believe strongly in the value of higher education, and in helping those who have not had the same advantages we have," deGraaf said.

"The CARES Support Fund will allow us to support students in ways that were not possible in the past," said Toni Thomas, director of CARES. "For instance, underrepresented students are sometimes hesitant to study abroad, but we know that it is an experience that is life changing, in a positive manner. Now, we can not only encourage students to study abroad, but we can provide financial support as we encourage them to spread their wings and venture outside their comfort zone."

In addition to supporting CARES programming, the fund will also support students who may need assistance purchasing books or food, or who cannot afford the Freshman Summer Program (FSP) fee. FSP is a five-week residential academic enrichment program designed to assist students with transitioning from high school to college. The program is targeted to underrepresented student groups, including first-generation and low-income students.

Mackenzie Plata-Madrid, a UK freshman, said the FSP made her transition to college much easier.

"I thought FSP was very beneficial because I got to meet new people and get a jump start on college," Plata-Madrid said. "FSP helped me navigate the campus better once I came back for the fall semester. I got to learn about the different resources that can help with my success here at UK."

"The FSP facilitates building a solid foundation that leads to increased retention and ultimately graduation," Thomas said. "FSP participants enroll in college level courses, engage in activities that allow them to have an understandable introduction to academic expectations through classroom experiences with faculty, learn about and connect to campus resources and begin to develop a sense of belonging and community."

This gift furthers the goals of Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign, the university’s $2.1 billion comprehensive campaign focused on improving student success, funding innovative research, strengthening health care, growing UK's alumni network and supporting its athletic programs. Kentucky Can aims to improve opportunities for everyone UK serves. By offering increased academic support, donors like deGraaf are removing obstacles for students and improving their ability to succeed.

As other prospective donors learn about the CARES Support Fund, deGraaf hopes they will recognize the benefit they can provide to underrepresented students in need. 

"I am very excited to be involved with the CARES Support Fund and will be looking forward to hearing stories about some of the students who are benefiting from it," deGraaf said.

in 1970, deGraaf graduated from UK with a bachelor's degree in home economics/interior design merchandising, and in 1988, she earned a master's degree in communication. She currently lives in southern Indiana, near Louisville, with her husband.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.