Campus News

Wildcat Wednesday: Ruth Coleman, 1st Black Woman to Graduate from UK Engineering

Photo of Ruth Coleman
Photo of Ruth Coleman

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 16, 2022)  To commemorate Black History Month, University of Kentucky Public Relations and Strategic Communications is highlighting alumni from the UK Alumni Association’s Pioneer Project throughout the month of February. Be sure to check UKNow each "Wildcat Wednesday" this month to learn more about a UK alum who left an important legacy at our university.

On this “Wildcat Wednesday,” UK honors Ruth Coleman — the first Black woman to graduate from the College of Engineering in 1977, not long after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Coleman lived on a family farm in Lexington, Kentucky that belonged to her ancestors from the time slavery was abolished.  

After graduating from Bryan Station High School in 1968, Coleman pursued a bachelor’s degree from Transylvania University. She completed two years as a math major but was convinced by co-workers to switch to engineering.    

“Even with a Ph.D. in math, one can’t earn as much as an engineer,” Coleman said in a 1977 interview with the Lexington Herald (now the Herald-Leader).

Coleman transferred to Lexington Technical Institute (now Bluegrass Community and Technical College) where she earned her associate degree in engineering technology. Shortly after, Coleman started working for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which at that time, was known as the Kentucky Department of Transportation's Division of Bridges.    

Upon enrolling in civil engineering classes at UK, Coleman often found herself to be the only Black student — and the only female.

“It can be difficult for a Black woman to relate to all the white male students in the department,” she said.

But Coleman persevered.

In 1977, she earned her degree in civil engineering — becoming the first Black woman to graduate from UK Engineering.

Following graduation, Coleman moved to Alaska where she became a senior structural engineer and the owner of a firm.    

Thanks to pioneers — like Coleman — the number of Black women embracing careers in the field of engineering has greatly increased. As a result, so has the quality of the entire field.  

To learn more about how the university is celebrating Black History Month visit  

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.