LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 10, 2021) – Early mornings. Late nights. A full-time job, full class load, and two young sons at home all day throughout the pandemic.
The road to earning her bachelor’s degree hasn’t been easy. But this week, University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences undergrad Brooke Poe will finally see the fruits of her labor pay off as she officially earns her bachelor’s degree in clinical leadership and management. Led by Assistant Professor Sarah Kercsmar, Ph.D., this undergraduate program is designed for students who are interested in careers in healthcare management or healthcare administration.
“I always describe our program as the intersection between business and healthcare,” Kercsmar said. “Our students know they want to work in the healthcare environment, but they don’t want to be direct care providers, but more on the back side providing support.”
For the past six years – five of them with UK – Poe has steadily chipped away at her degree. Her work and family responsibilities meant she was often fitting in school and study time whenever she could. Some days, Poe would go into work extra early to make up for the time she would need to attend class that day. She credits her husband for taking on more work at home throughout the process, as their sons also keep them busy – her younger son, Rhodes, has some health issues that require regular physician visits and weekly physical therapy. Her older son, AJ, plays competitive baseball. After work, she would frequently take him to practice or games (studying at the field when possible), then come home to feed, bathe and bed both kids. Only then would she be able to settle down and begin her schoolwork.
“I think my challenges have been finding the time to study and to [physically] go to class,” she said. “If I had in-person class, I had to go to work early or stay late to make up that time so that I didn’t lose any pay. So that’s been one of the largest struggles, is finding the right time management abilities.”
“Brooke did a great job from the very beginning in balancing all the things – life, kids, being a student,” Kerscmar said. “She knew where she wanted to end up, and she wasn’t going to stop until she got there.”
While working and learning from home during the pandemic provided its own new set of challenges, Poe says UK’s transition to virtual learning also provided some new opportunities that she found helpful as a parent. Attending virtual-only and hybrid classes cut out her commute, giving her more time to complete work at her job or deal with family matters. Even something as simple as meeting virtually with her academic advisor helped balance her schedule.
“Everyone switched to Zoom meetings, which helped me so much because I wasn’t having to take off work 30 minutes early to drive down to campus and park, have my meetings, and come back,” she said. “Before, I didn’t know that was an option, but now it’s okay to ask for that.”
“It’s really important for our nontraditional students that we acknowledge that they have lives and other responsibilities,” Kercsmar said. “[The pandemic has shown that] we don’t have to do things the same way that we’ve always done things. There are lots of different ways we can meet students where they are.”
Support from Health Sciences faculty has been crucial to Poe’s success. Poe says that Kercsmar has been “a light in a dark tunnel” throughout her educational journey, checking on her, helping her rearrange classes to better fit her schedule, and even just reaching out if she felt Poe wasn’t speaking up enough in class.
“She’s had my back throughout this entire process,” Poe said. “I truly don’t believe I could be here without her support and her help. I would say that a huge portion of my transformation as a student and into a better human is because of her.”
Higher education is something Poe doesn’t take for granted. After having her first son at age 19, she completed most of an associate’s degree at Georgetown College before pausing her education. She admits that she sometimes “felt embarrassed” about not yet having earned the same level of education as many of her peers, but that motivated her to keep working toward her bachelor’s degree. As soon as she began full-time employment at UK, she says she immediately signed up for the university’s Employee Education Program.
“I had the drive to want to obtain my degree and then use it to find the best possible job that fits my family and my needs, and lets me give my kids as much as I can,” she said. “My drive is my children.”
That job, she hopes, will be a major role in hospital administration one day. Since 2016, Poe has worked full-time in various jobs across UK HealthCare, from the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute to the UK Department of Surgery. When UK announced its record-breaking $87 million HEALing Communities Study – and all the new job opportunities that came with that funding – Poe said she jumped at the chance to join the initiative.
“I’ve always grown up wanting to help my community… I want to help people who have social determinants that affect them in negative ways,” she said. “When I heard that [HEAL] was hiring for help in administrative settings, I couldn’t get there fast enough.”
Poe splits her work time between HEAL and UK’s Substance Use Priority Research Area (SUPRA), providing administrative support for all faculty involved. Through HEAL, she also gets the opportunity to go out into the community to help – for example, delivering educational materials to pharmacies or handing out naloxone at community events.
“I am just elated that I get to be a part of it,” Poe said. “I see wonderful things happening – I see minds being changed. Opinions changed. People better understanding addiction. And I am just so invested in the people that we’re helping.”
Poe’s experience working closely with UK HealthCare and HEAL/SUPRA also proved beneficial to drive home what she and her fellow students were learning in the classroom, Kercsmar said.
“One of the things I love about working with Brooke – and with nontraditional students more broadly – is that they bring so much real-life experience to the classroom, both personal and professional,” Kercsmar said. “Much of what she brought into class this year had to do with the things she was working on in her job. You could definitely see how the job was informing her work in the classroom, and how the classroom was informing the job.”
Now at the finish line for her bachelor’s degree – with a 3.8 GPA – Poe says her educational journey isn’t yet done. She’ll take a break from classes this summer, where she’ll get to watch AJ play baseball without worrying about homework for a change. Then starting this fall, she’ll begin working on her master’s degree with a concentration on health systems and policy analytics in the UK College of Public Health.
“As a single mom with a baby at 19, it was scary, and it was hard,” she said. “I never thought I’d make it here, But graduating is something that no one can take away from me. It means that those nights where my son ate dinner and I didn’t, or the nights where I was up until two o’clock in the morning so that I could take a test the next day, were all worth it.”
Poe describes her journey the past six years as a lesson in “deferred gratification,” a concept taught to her by her father. For other nontraditional students who find themselves in similar circumstances, she hopes that her story can provide some hope that juggling employment, school and a family can be done.
“I would say not to get discouraged by how long it may seem it will take,” she said. “You glance at it, and it’s this tidal wave [of work] coming at you, and you feel like you’re never going to surf that wave. Yes, it’s hard, and you’re probably not going to sleep very much. But I hope other people can see that you can do it.”
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.