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Fulfilling a Dream

UK and the College of Arts & Sciences are helping former students complete their degrees.


By Jennifer T. Allen

Joe Best had many life experiences in the short time he was an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky. While a history major, he was also engaged, married, divorced and active in the Army Reserve. When his reserve unit was called up for Desert Storm in January 1991, it marked the end of his college aspirations. At least for right then. 

"I guess you could say it was a storm of things that didn’t make college very successful for me at the time," Best said. "I had no idea what I wanted to be or why I was going to college, and I was less than motivated."

While he was stationed at Fort Knox, Best was notified that he had a job with the Lexington Fire Department. That solidified his decision to leave college, just shy of a few credits to graduate, and begin a 28-year career as a firefighter. 

"When I joined the fire department, you only needed a high school diploma," Best said. "I thought it was a no brainer and that I didn’t need a degree." 

Fast-forward 31 years from when he began college the first time and Best is in a cap and gown in Rupp Arena receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies. 

"I wanted to put the lingering, nagging regret of not finishing my college degree behind me," Best said. "Also, as I progressed through the ranks of the fire department, it became clear that a college degree was necessary to move up." 

Coming back to college after being out for so long was no easy feat, but the Project Graduate program made it much easier for Best. Project Graduate is a statewide initiative to assist adult learners who have accumulated 80 or more credit hours to return to finish their first bachelor’s degrees. The program has been active at UK for more than 15 years and the College of Arts & Sciences has led the way, especially the last two years with its Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree and availability of online classes. 

“A&S is really at the forefront of looking at the students and offering a way for returning students to complete their degree with relative ease and flexibility,” said Aaron Vaught, assistant registrar.

"As the largest college on campus, the College of Arts & Sciences has great depth and breadth in fields of study. This gives the Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BLS) flexibility in how past classes count toward the degree," said Ruth Beattie, associate dean of advising in the College of Arts & Sciences. "It’s not that the BLS is any less stringent than any other degree. It is a rigorous degree, but the immense diversity of the college gives us the ability to place classes toward the degree that may not count for other majors. That expansive background in study also gives students the work life skills they need for any career."

In order to help as many students as possible obtain their degree through Project Graduate, an initiative to offer BLS classes online kicked off the spring 2018 semester and classes are continually being added. Courses are also being offered in eight-week sections to help make classes friendly for those who work full-time and have other obligations. Finances can also be a concern for many students, including those returning to school after an absence. UK has launched an institutional loan specifically for select Project Graduate students to help with the financial strain of coming back to school to complete a degree. 

"There are many resources available from the University and the College to help make sure Project Graduate students can be successful," said Aaron Vaught, assistant registrar. 

Those resources extend to one-on-one advising, special registration times and BLS restricted classes. With almost 350 students enrolled in the program since 2016 and 221 degrees awarded in that time, the program is helping many students fulfill their goal of obtaining a college degree. 

"Students may have halted their studies before graduation for personal, family, or health reasons, or work or armed forces obligations. This program is really giving students an opportunity to complete a degree they started in the past and then stopped," Beattie said. "It is improving the University’s graduation rate, but more than that, it is affecting individuals that now have a university degree which opens more doors for them." 

Once a student decides to stop pursuing a degree, it can seem daunting to try to navigate the system and come back after many years away. "There is no easy way to make entry again unless you know the new processes and people," Best said. "Once you step out, you lose contacts and it’s hard to find your way back. The Project Graduate program is a godsend." 

Now retired from the Lexington Fire Department, Best still feels there is time for another adventure or career which will only be positively impacted with his new bachelor’s degree. 

"I recommend the Project Graduate program 100 percent," he said. "I don’t have the words to describe what it meant to walk in graduation and have my wife, son, mom and sister there. It meant so much to me." &

If you are interested in making a gift to help former students complete their degrees, please contact the Arts & Sciences Office of Philanthropy at or (859) 323-7068.