Student and Academic Life

5 Students Selected to Speak at UK Commencement Ceremonies

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 13, 2021) — Per University of Kentucky tradition, UK President Eli Capilouto has selected student representatives to speak at the UK Commencement Ceremonies May 14-16, at Rupp Arena.

Five speakers in total were selected. Each speaker will address two of the 10 ceremonies. Given limitations on the number of people allowed on the stage, the speeches will be pre-recorded.

The five student speakers are:

Sy Bridenbaugh

Bridenbaugh, from Richmond, Kentucky, is graduating with a doctoral degree in educational policy studies and evaluation from the UK College of Education.

After suffering a severe football injury in high school, Bridenbaugh contracted a bacterial infection that resulted in losing his leg, and almost his life. After his leg was amputated, he made a decision to direct his passion for football to education. As an amputee, he embraces the unique way he lives his life. He has become a motivational speaker and blogs about his experience as an amputee on his website www.lifeononeleg.com.

Bridenbaugh has been at UK for nearly 15 years now, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and now a doctoral degree. He has spent the last several years working as a teaching assistant in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, earning the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2017.

“I hope the major takeaway from my speech is focused on understanding that overcoming hurdles isn’t easy, but it’s worth it,” Bridenbaugh said. “As an amputee, it was tough at first to acclimate myself to a campus the size of UK, but I eventually learned that being different or diverse can actually be celebrated, it just takes us all working together.” 

His speech will be presented at the 9 a.m. and noon ceremonies Friday, May 14.

Lauren Sammons

Sammons, from Gurnee, Illinois, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in clinical leadership and management from the College of Health Sciences, with minors in Spanish and health advocacy.

Sammons was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord do not form properly. As a result, she has limited physical mobility and wears full-time leg braces. When she made the decision to come to UK, she was unsure of how she might find a home and community in a new state.

“I have been so blessed and overwhelmed by the encouragement and opportunities presented to me while at UK,” Sammons said. “Irrespective of my physical disability, I have truly felt welcomed and a fulfilling sense of belonging at UK, and I couldn’t be more honored to be a Wildcat. Being a student speaker gives me the opportunity to give a final thanks, pay recognition to all those who have supported me and present upon how my time here has been so significant.”

During her time at UK, Sammons received the competitive Presidential Scholarship, the 2021 Still We Rise Scholarship and the 2021 Carol S. Adelstein Outstanding Student Award, which is presented to one student with a disability who serves as an inspiration to the UK community. She also serves on her college’s diversity and inclusion board and attended UK’s first Inclusive Health Summit. She is involved in many campus and community organizations, including spina bifida associations in Kentucky and Illinois.

She is currently finishing a practicum with UK HealthCare, focusing on both diversity, equity and inclusion and patient experience and quality improvement.

“Above all, I want my fellow graduates to feel proud of what we have accomplished together as a team,” she said. “Not only for graduating, but for overcoming their adversity and rising above with kindness, passion and determination. We, as Big Blue Nation, are truly exceptional, and I want everyone to remember to take pride in being a Wildcat and to bleed blue wherever they go.”

Sammons’ speech will be presented at the 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ceremonies Friday, May 14.

Bilal Shaikh

Shaikh, from Louisville, Kentucky, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science from the UK College of Arts and Sciences, and a minor in biology. He is also a student in the Lewis Honors College.

Shaikh has spent the last academic year serving as vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA).

“As student body vice president, I have devoted so much of myself to this university advocating on behalf of its student body. So the opportunity to address those very students one last time means the world to me,” Shaikh said. “When I got the call from President Capilouto inviting me to be a speaker, I could not help but think of all the amazing people — faculty, staff and students — who helped me along the way; I look forward to thanking them for the wonderful four years I've had here.”

In addition to SGA, Shaikh works as an undergraduate research assistant in the Department of Biology and is an Aramark employee on campus. He also served as a student representative on the University Senate Council.

He hopes his fellow graduates will reflect on what has been learned during this past, often difficult year.

“My speech is going to be one which highlights all the incredible accomplishments we've achieved. However, it will also consider how this experience can be used to benefit us in our future,” he said. “UK prides itself on community, and I would like to use my platform to re-emphasize the importance of being a community. After all, it was this value in action which got us through the most difficult circumstances.”

Shaikh’s speech will be presented at the 9 a.m. and noon ceremonies Saturday, May 15.

Abbi Woodcock

Woodcock, from Bowling Green, Kentucky, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics from the UK Gatton College of Business and Economics, and a minor in political science. She is also a student in the Lewis Honors College.

During her time at UK, Woodcock has served as a peer mentor in the Lewis Honors College, a member of Phi Mu sorority, ambassador in the Center for Personal Development and president of the Junior Panhellenic Association.

In 2019, she earned the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Honors FBI Internship, where she had top security clearance as a student workforce trainee. She also completed a business development internship for the The Nest, a local nonprofit organization. She currently interns with Merrill Lynch, Musgrave Dunn & Associates.

Embracing her economics major, Woodcock has centered her speech on a theme of change as an investment.

“When students hear my speech, I want them to know that though change is scary, it’s a great opportunity for growth,” she said. “It’s scary when things change, and it’s okay to be scared. But don’t let the fear hinder your ability to evolve as a person. Change is growth. We can’t grow as students and as people if everything always stays the same. So embrace it!”

Woodcock’s speech will be presented at the 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ceremonies Saturday, May 15.

Cameron French

French, from Wolfe County, Kentucky, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in community leadership and development from the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, with a minor in political science.

As a first-generation college student, French said he struggled with his mental health during his first two years years at UK. Since seeking help through UK's Counseling Center, he began working to destigmatize mental health on college campuses, and has collaborated with nonprofit organizations to raise funds for mental health resources in Kentucky. It's a topic he addresses in his speech.

“I hope that my speech reminds my fellow graduates that they are never alone," he said. "Life is hard on all of us, and sometimes we each need a reminder of how many people are in our corner. During my darkest moments, people from our campus community wrapped their arms around me. There are people that each of us made an impact on during our time on this campus that are going to be with us forever.”

During his time at UK, French received the Robinson Legacy Scholarship and the Sigma Phi Epsilon Balanced Man Scholarship. He was also named 2020 UK Homecoming King. He participated in SGA, serving as a 2018-19 senator at large and 2020-21 assistant director of health and wellness. He has also been involved in DanceBlue, serving as a 2018 team captain and alumni relations coordinator this past year.

“For me, being a graduation speaker is an opportunity to thank the people of this campus for helping me grow over the past four years,” French said. “This campus taught me to love myself and those around me. Speaking at graduation allows me to verbalize how thankful I am to be a member of our Wildcat family.” 

French’s speech will be presented at the 9 a.m. and noon ceremonies Sunday, May 16.

Around 4,400 graduates plan to participate across 10 ceremonies May 14-16. All ceremonies will be livestreamed on UK's YouTube channel, which will be accessible via the UKNow homepage beginning Friday. For more information about the May 2021 Commencement Ceremonies, visit http://uknow.uky.edu/campus-news/uk-honor-may-2021-2020-graduates-weekend.

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 four 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" three 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 five 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.