The following remarks were made by President Eli Capilouto at the April University of Kentucky Board of Trustees meeting.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 3, 2023) — With your approval today, we will prepare to confer nearly 6,000 degrees next weekend a few blocks from here at Rupp Arena.
There are so many stories behind each diploma – of success and triumph, of hard work and resilience, of families that sacrificed and dreamed, and yes, at times, of setbacks and tragedy.
This afternoon, I want to share one.
Growing up wasn’t easy for Ashley Wright.
She lost her father at an early age. Ashley and her family in Louisville didn’t have much.
If she were to go to college, Ashley would be the first in her family to do so.
But she was determined. Obstacles wouldn’t define her. They would drive her to do more.
“Losing my father helped shape me,” Ashley said. “It is one of the main reasons why I am here and pursued an education at the University of Kentucky.”
Ashley worked her way through school, starting at Walgreen’s. Advisors in the College of Arts and Sciences and in Public Health helped her to focus her interests.
Three faculty members mentored her through their passion for subjects like epidemiology and environmental health.
Their teaching – and shadowing experiences she had at public health agencies – further lit her desire to help create and sustain healthier communities.
In response to the devastating flooding in Eastern Kentucky last year, a group of University of Kentucky College of Public Health students, including Ashley, contributed to public health preparedness and response.
They assisted agencies across the state’s tiered preparedness system through a federal initiative called the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, or CASPER.
That initiative provides an opportunity to receive up to 12 months of funded research training in neurotrauma at our College of Medicine.
After walking across the stage next week with a bachelor’s degree in public health in hand she will return to pursue her Master of Public Health.
She has a career goal in mind – working for a federal agency such as the EPA or CDC because “I want to make a difference and change people’s lives. I want to gain more experiences so I can be ready to change the policies that can help everyone be healthier.”
“All my life, I’ve had to fight harder than most,” Ashley says. “I am doing this for my family and want to be able to take care of them one day. My drive and my background are what separates me from most. I am willing to do what it takes.”
Kentucky is lucky to have one Ashley Wright, fighting for a better future.
But Kentucky needs thousands of Ashley Wrights.
And that is the special role and responsibility we have at the University of Kentucky. Led by this board, we have reaffirmed – and renewed our commitment to – our historic mission to advance our state in everything that we do.
For several hours yesterday, we discussed in detail the distinctive role our academic health system – UK HealthCare – plays in that mission.
To meet the increasing needs of patients, we must grow our footprint on this campus and in communities around us – to care for more children … to offer more advanced specialty services to those with the most complex cases … to take care of our own people closer to their homes …. and to open doors for healing for those who don’t have access to care right in our own midst.
No Kentuckian should be turned away because the need is too complex, or the space is not there or service simply not available.
And that will mean attracting, growing and retaining a talented and committed workforce necessary to provide that care along with the infrastructure, technology and research to support their efforts.
That’s the vision you so strongly endorsed yesterday. And that’s the commitment we must make – and reach for each day – with a sense of unyielding determination.
Similarly, more students – more Ashley Wrights – need the outstanding education and opportunity that only we provide in this state.
In a little more than a decade, we have built nearly $4 billion in infrastructure – much of it self-financed -- to support our growth and our commitment to advance this state.
We will need to continue to build – not for ourselves, but for our state’s future.
And we will – as we must – continue to grow.
As we do so, we will need more great teachers like those Ashley encountered, particularly in areas and disciplines responsive to the needs of our state.
Today, you will also recognize 16 university research professors for their outstanding contributions to scholarship.
They excel in diverse fields – from public policy to pharmaceutical sciences … from healing communities through public health to restoring souls through poetry and literature.
Just as we need more Ashley Wrights, we will need more professors, scholars and instructors like Crystal Wilkinson … Erin Haynes … Feng Li and Ron Zimmer.
Because no Kentuckian who has the capacity and commitment to live and learn in this special community should be turned away – because of cost or space, distance or geography, background, identity or perspective.
The doors of access to the education we provide should be open widest to Kentuckians like Ashley.
Thriving institutions have two things in common.
They know who they are. They are firmly focused on their mission and why they exist.
And they aren’t afraid to change, evolve and grow to meet the needs of those they serve.
These are not contradictory challenges. They are complementary commitments.
Our commitment is now as it has always been – to advance Kentucky. Our state needs us now more than ever before – remaining true to our north star, but willing to change and grow to meet the evolving needs of a state through the education we provide, the research we conduct and the care and service we render.
I know we can do this. I see the proof points of progress each day. I see it in the stories – of promise and potential, renewal and resolve, discovery and breakthrough – that are written and forged across our campus each day.
Ashley Wright’s story is just one. We are here to help thousands more like her write their stories, too.