By Molly Williamson
Seven University of Kentucky students received an unexpected gift around Thanksgiving of last year – a scholarship that reduced or eliminated their debt last semester. On April 9, they were able to thank their donors in person.
“This scholarship takes a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Chase Robbins, a freshman majoring in international business. “I am so grateful for their support.”
The scholarships are a new initiative by First Breckinridge Bancshares, a banking holding company that owns seven community banks with 28 locations throughout Kentucky. For the 2018-19 academic year, the banks created scholarships through the UK Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success (LEADS) initiative, supporting a student from their respective communities. The banks will provide these one-time scholarships for the next three years.
This first group of recipients are Robbins, First State Bank UK LEADS Breckinridge County Scholarship; freshman Elijah Coonrod, Bank of Lexington UK LEADS Fayette County Scholarship; freshman Seth Elmore, Bank of Clarkson UK LEADS Grayson County Scholarship; freshman Erin Shortt, West Point Bank UK LEADS Hardin County Scholarship; freshman Imani Bryant, River City Bank UK LEADS Jefferson County Scholarship; freshman Dalton Dowdle, Meade County Bank UK LEADS Meade County Scholarship; and freshman Maegan Rogers, American Bank & Trust UK LEADS Warren County Scholarship.
“As small-town banks, we are intrinsically linked to the people we serve,” said Allison Willoughby, president of Meade Bancorp, which owns Meade County Bank. “We want to be there for the big moments in their lives, and we know that funding college is becoming increasingly more difficult for many families in our communities. We want to help in any way we can.”
Created in 2016, the LEADS initiative helps students who have unmet need. Using a formula that considers students’ academic merit and financial needs, UK awards LEADS scholarships to students who are academically successful but are in danger of not returning to school based on their student debt. Most LEADS recipients have $5,000 or more in unmet financial responsibilities.
“It can be stressful trying to figure out how you are going to pay for college,” said Robbins, who checks his student account every few weeks. “I don’t want to worry about the money aspect of college, but it is hard to ignore. I want to know where I stand and what I will be responsible for after graduation.”
Though the banks fund the scholarships, they do not participate in the selection process and are unaware of the recipients until after the scholarships are awarded. On April 9, the bank presidents gathered at the Boone Center on UK's campus to meet their recipients.
For Maegan Rogers, the scholarship was a lifesaver. An agriculture education and economics major, Rogers struggled to afford her education. After her sister was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, money was tight around their home. Rogers works full time while juggling a full course load at UK. After a tough first semester, she feared she would have to take a year off to raise enough money to complete her education.
“My financial struggles were keeping me up at night,” Rogers said. “When I found out about this scholarship, I think that was the first night I slept all the way through. It took a huge weight off my chest. This scholarship literally saved my education.”
Stories like Rogers’ are why First Breckinridge started the scholarship, said Blake Willoughby, president and chairman of First Breckinridge Bancshares. They want to empower the students from their hometowns to accomplish their academic goals.
“As a UK alumnus, I know the value of a UK education,” Willoughby said. “My bachelor’s and master’s degrees prepared me for the challenges of leading and growing our banking company. We wanted all Kentucky students to have the opportunity I had to access an outstanding education and to achieve their dreams.”
Seth Elmore, an aspiring attorney, came to UK because he knew it would give him a good foundation for law, but as one of six children, he knew that he would be responsible for funding his education. In his first year, Elmore has focused on his studies so that he can earn scholarships for the remainder of his UK career.
“I have a 4.0, and getting this scholarship makes me feel like I am doing something right,” Elmore said. “It is a big motivator for me. It will definitely motivate me to keep doing well.”
The scholarship enriched Erin Shortt’s UK experience, enabling the merchandising, apparel and textiles major to travel to New York over Spring Break to learn more about the fashion and retail industries. The trip was a three-credit, intensive course through her major.
“When I first saw the scholarship in my account, I thought it was a mistake,” Shortt said. “It was amazing and has given me more opportunities than I could imagine for this school year. I have learned so much about myself this year, and having this scholarship and this experience to go to New York makes my time at UK even more special.”
For first-generation students like Dalton Dowdle and Imani Bryant, the scholarships were especially meaningful. They had worked hard throughout high school to become the first in their families to graduate college, and they said the scholarship was an acknowledgment of their hard work.
Bryant plans to use her education to give back to her community. She is studying dentistry, because she knows oral health is a concern in Kentucky.
“I want to provide for the people who cannot afford dental care, teach children about the importance of oral health and give back to the people in my community,” Bryant said. “UK seemed like the best place to do that.”
The bank presidents said they created the scholarships because they do not want finances to be an impediment for the scholarship recipients.
“These students are our future,” Allison Willoughby said. “They have the power to improve the Commonwealth and the world. We want to equip them with the knowledge and tools to pursue their dreams, so they can inspire other students and hopefully return to strengthen our communities.”
Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign is a comprehensive campaign focused on increasing opportunities for student success, funding innovative research, improving health care, strengthening our alumni network, and supporting our athletic programs.