Major Improvement - Stephanie Spires

By Robin Roenker

UK alumna Stephanie Spires—who earned a B.A. in Secondary Education Social Studies in 2003—recently found herself in the interesting position of being awarded a second UK major years after graduation day, without having to step foot in a single additional undergraduate class.

While she had never officially declared political science as a major, Spires’ lifelong love of the social and political aspects of government and international relations kept her signing up for class after class within the Department of Political Science during her undergraduate tenure.

While unaware of it at the time, Spires actually earned enough Political Science credits while at UK to have rightly earned an Arts & Sciences major alongside her UK Education degree.

While belated, the degree award is fitting, given the busy role the 31-year-old has taken on in local politics and community activism.

The oversight was first caught by UK political science professor Dr. Stephen Voss, one of Spires’ undergraduate professors. Voss recently ran into Spires—now a community activist, candidate for Lexington’s 3rd District council seat, and president of Limelight Promotions, LLC, her own event management, communications, and fundraising consulting firm in downtown Lexington—and urged her to request an audit of her coursework in order to be awarded her rightful polisci major.

“Who knew, nine years later, that you could be awarded a second major from the University,” Spires joked.

While Spires had originally planned to go into education as a high school history or government teacher, instead her career has focused on nonprofit work—a move, she said, that “ties back into that socially conscious side of me.” It’s a trait she proudly credits her parents for instilling within her.

“My father was a Presbyterian minister. My mom was a professional. They sat on several boards in their communities,” said Spires, who grew up splitting her time between her father’s home in Corbin, Ky., and her mother’s home in Knoxville, Tenn. “My parents didn’t shelter me from things. . . . I have been to almost all 120 Kentucky counties.  I have been to Phelps and I have been to Fancy Farm. I have seen the hollers and the land between the lakes.  When my father ministered to patients in nursing homes, mental health facilities, or the hospital, he took me along.  While my mother taught my kindergarten classmate’s mother how to read after school, I came along to play with my friend.”

In the department, it was the international politics courses that Spires found most interesting. “I was like a sponge in those classes, soaking everything up,” said Spires, who did her undergraduate work at UK between 1999 and 2003.  Given the charged climate in the early days post 9/11, Spires was fascinated by the timeliness and relevance of the themes in her international polisci classes, she said.

“I really found the international politics classes to be so pertinent to the time. And also everything that I learned in there was new knowledge to me,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, Spires sought out leadership roles in her sorority, Kappa Delta, as well as UK’s Student Government Association, even chairing a student committee on ways to increase campus safety.

That role seemed to come full circle last summer, when Spires was appointed by Lexington mayor Jim Gray to serve on the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government’s Commission on Youth Development and Public Safety, which looked at ways to curb the growing wave of youth violence in the city.

It was that appointment that finally convinced Spires to run for public office, after years of being encouraged to do so by her friends and family.

“In that committee, we identified the at-risk community as males between the ages of 10 and 24. And at the time, we had two boys that fell into that group in our home,” said Spires, who routinely fosters children in the care of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services with her husband, John, a UK Law graduate. “I began to wonder how many people in City Hall really recognize the impact of social services—the impact it has when an agency or community center is closed during the summer, and the ways that affects children in our community,” she said.

If elected to the Fayette Urban County Council, Spires—who is currently renovating her 100-year-old home on North Ashland Avenue—plans to focus on a range of issues including public safety and social services, historic preservation and downtown design, and town-and-gown relations in the 3rd District, where many families and UK students coexist.

“I feel like with this campaign, I really have a chance to make a difference in our community and stand up to be a voice for those who have been unheard,” said Spires, who is also currently pursuing a master’s degree at UK in higher education.

Professionally, Spires launched the beginnings of her impressive career while still a UK student, having been tapped as executive director of the Bluegrass Tennis Association while still a senior. (She was invited to apply for the position, after serving as an officer on the UK club tennis team.) She then worked as executive director of the McKenna Foundation, helping that agency meet its fundraising goal to open the new pediatric emergency room at UK Hospital. Following that post, she worked on staff at UK, first in the Athletics Department and then in Student Affairs.

Then, in 2009, Spires landed a two-year appointment in Frankfort as an executive advisor to the House Majority Whip. In that position, she said, she helped with communications for a number of House members and found herself drawing upon her political science background daily.

“I was calling professors in the Political Science Department and in the UK Economics Department all the time,” Spires said, “just to talk things through or seek out resources for research and data that legislators were looking for.”

While in Frankfort, Spires handled an array of constituent issues, many of them dealing with child custody and the foster care system, and that experience was what convinced her to become a foster parent.

Despite her busy schedule, Spires makes time to follow in her parents’ footsteps, serving as an advocate and board member for an array of area causes, including the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, the Lexington Public Library, Bluegrass Tennis Association, and the Junior League of Lexington, among others.

And whenever possible, she and her husband, John, advocate for UK. “We bleed blue,” she said. “My time at UK was such an amazing experience. We try to stay involved with the university as much as we can, and not just in supporting athletics, but also with our continuing work with the UK Hospital, UK Law, the UK Art Museum, UK Athletics, and patronage of the Singletary Center,” Spires said.

“My time at UK definitely helped provide a wonderful foundation for the path that I’m on today,” Spires said.

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