While I was in Los Angeles on business a couple weeks ago, I bumped into an enthusiastic lawyer named Christian Keeney who interrogated me about when his alma mater would be featured on my blog. I advised the young Wildcat that his school would be next in line if he drafted the profile for me.

He emailed a polished draft before the week was out, so this 8th installment in my series on great American universities highlights the University of Kentucky (“UK”), which I think you’ll enjoy. UK has a lot to offer including some of the best equine research, equine medicine, and agricultural research programs that you’ll find anywhere.

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UK Seal. Click through for image source.Greetings! My name is Christian Keeney, and I’m happy to share with you my experience and knowledge about my alma mater, the University of Kentucky.

After a great four years on campus, I graduated from the University in 2004 with a degree in political science. Though I now live in Los Angeles, I remain in close contact with many of my UK friends, and I return to visit campus regularly. We UK alumni are a fiercely proud and loyal bunch.

I’ll start by noting that the University of Kentucky is an excellent example of a “land-grant university.” Land-grant universities are schools that were founded as part of the various Morrill Acts, the first of which was passed in 1862, authorizing the federal government to gift federally controlled land to the States for them to establish colleges to educate their citizens on agricultural and mechanical sciences.

Many land-grant universities are now among the largest and most highly regarded universities in the United States, and their curriculums have expanded to include liberal arts, business, medicine, and a wide variety of other subjects. Among the many land-grant universities are the Ivy League’s Cornell University, science and technology powerhouse MIT, and the highly ranked University of Wisconsin – Madison.

UK’s original Main Building on campus. Click through for image source.

University of Kentucky’s original Main Building, at the heart of campus.

Click through for image source.The six-story William T. Young Library has the largest book endowment of any public university library in the United States.

The massive William T. Young Library has the largest book endowment of any public university library in the United States.

Founded in 1865, UK is located in the beautiful Commonwealth of Kentucky, at the top of the Southeastern United States and bordered by 7 other States (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri). In terms of territory, Kentucky is slightly smaller than the North Island of New Zealand, and has about 4.4 million people.

The University is located in the city of Lexington in the northeastern part of Kentucky. The campus covers 784 acres (3.17 square kilometers) of lush, green space dotted with heritage red-brick and modern buildings. The Main Building, built in 1882, is the only structure remaining from the original four that made up UK’s campus.

A quiet green. Click through for image source.

One of the large greens on campus, during autumn.

The University is home to approximately 20,000 undergraduate students and 8,000 graduate and professional students, as well as more than 2,000 professors (including noted author Wendell Berry). The overall student-faculty ratio is 18:1. A full third of all classes have less than 20 students. Approximately half of all classes have between 20-49 students. The remaining larger classes are mostly introductory-level lectures.

UK offers more than 200 specialized undergraduate and advanced degree programs through 19 colleges and schools. Professional degrees are offered in dentistry, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and landscape architecture. A significant number of those programs are ranked high nationally.

The Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center is the epicenter of the equine science and management programs, providing a single location for equine classes and research. Click through for image source.

The Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center is the epicenter of the equine science, research, and management programs.

Among UK’s mostly highly regarded degree offerings is the College of Agriculture’s equine science and management curriculum, one of only two such specialized programs in the United States. There are two divisions available, depending on your particular interest. There is an equine science concentration that covers equine research, veterinary care, and breeding. There is also an equine management concentration that covers the business and marketing of horses and horseracing. Coupled with surrounding horse breeding and racing industries for which Kentucky is world renown, this degree program offers students a truly unique, world-class oppotunity to launch an exciting career.

The University’s College of Agriculture is also famous for its sophisticated farming research programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index ranks the College of Agriculture in the top ten in the nation. The College’s plant sciences department has been ranked #5. The graduate studies program in plant pathology has been ranked #1. The Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, established in 1885, receives in excess of US$ 35 million each year in external grants and contracts, financing more than 300 major research projects.

Memorial Hall. Click through for image source.

Memorial Hall.

The College of Pharmacy is consistently ranked among the top five pharmacy schools in the United States.

Likewise, the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration is consistently ranked among “America’s Best Graduate Schools” by U.S. News & World Report.

For those of you who might want to follow in the Ambassador’s footsteps, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce is also highly regarded.

The University’s Honors Program is open to all students regardless of academic major and provides an alternative course of instruction for top students including individualized preparation for prestigious fellowships such as the Rhodes, Truman, and Fulbright programs.

The student experience at UK is consistently personal and individualized, which is part of why I had such a great experience. For example, I remember when former Kentucky governor and senator Wendell Ford interrupted a class to announce that someone in the class had been selected for the Truman Scholarship. As he made his way towards me, I thought it odd that I was being selected (because I had not even applied). At the last moment he veered left and congratulated the student next to me. A disappointment for me, but certainly a special way to advise the lucky recipient.

I should also mention UK’s Coldstream Research Campus, a separate 735-acre (300 hectare) research and innovation facility near the main campus that connects the University’s researchers and students with corporate research and development operations. Once a prominent horse farm, Coldstream is now home to more than 65 companies with more than 1,000 employees working with the University on biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, equine, information technology, engineering, and healthcare research and development projects.

The Coldwater Research Facility, an area on campus where students can get real world research experience working with major corporations. Click through for image source.

At the Coldstream Research Facility.

Constant improvement is a core objective at the University. For example, in 1997 the Kentucky General Assembly and UK launched the Top 20 Business Plan with the intention of boosting achievement and propelling UK into the ranks of the top 20 public research universities by 2020. Some of the mandates of the Plan include enrolling a greater number of research-oriented students and contributing even more funding to the university’s research functions.

The University is already benefitting from implementation of the Plan. Now ranked 28th among public universities for sponsored research, UK has raised more than US$ 1 billion to improve or add facilities and expand research opportunities on campus. There is also increased outreach in the Kentucky agricultural community, such as an upcoming free lecture series on modern no-till farming, a Kentucky innovation that is one of the greatest agricultural advancements of the last century.

The President’s House, near the center of campus.Click through for image source.

The President’s House, near the center of campus.

There is of course time for recreational and social activities. UK offers students more than 450 extracurricular organizations and clubs from which to choose. These include 42 fraternities and sororities, 35 club sports, and dozens of community service groups. The Bernard Johnson Student Recreation Center is a state-of-the-art 90,000-square-foot (8,400-square-meter) facility that includes an indoor climbing wall, a four-lane cantilevered running track, basketball and racquetball courts, group fitness studios, weight training, and a field of cardiovascular equipment.

The University’s opera theatre is one of the most respected programs of its kind in the United States. The group was recently invited to perform Our Lincoln at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth. They have performed at a number of other prestigious events and venues, including at the European Jumping and Dressage Championship at Windsor Castle.

Ammunition for the University’s massive water balloon fight. Click through for image source.


My of my favorite student activities, although it was launched just after I graduated, is the University’s annual water balloon fight.

High-spirited, quirky, and emblematic of the University’s student-focused culture, the recurring event has been acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest water balloon fight on Earth.

Just last year more than 11,000 participants chucked hundreds of thousands of water balloons at each other at the stroke of midnight.

UK’s official seal includes the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall,” echoing the State motto of Kentucky and referring to UK’s founding in 1865, the year that the American Civil War ended.

Kentucky has some unique connections to the American Civil War as it was one of the only States to declare itself neutral in the conflict. Also, Kentucky was the birthplace of both the Union President (Abraham Lincoln) and the Confederate President (Jefferson Davis).

The University’s official colors are blue and white. Many people believe that the selection of blue is an homage to Kentucky’s nickname — the “Bluegrass State” — but, in fact, blue was chosen by University students in 1882 when a star UK football player held up his royal blue necktie during a student debate about what the school’s official colors should be. The same group of students chose white as the school’s other color. Blue and white have remained the official school colors ever since.

UK fans supporting their team while proudly painting the school colors on themselves. A common sight at most UK sporting events. Click through for image source.

University of Kentucky students proudly wear the colors.

School spirit runs very high at UK. Many students support the Unversity’s many athletic teams by painting their faces and bodies in blue and white, or wearing blue and white clothing. The bleachers or stands at games become seas of blue and white. Even as far away from Kentucky as I am living in Los Angeles, I still get together with other UK alums to watch games together … and we all always wear blue and white.

The official nickname for UK sports teams is the “Wildcats.” The name originated from a professor’s remark after a punishing 6-2 football victory over the University of Illinois on October 9, 1909, that the Kentucky team “fought like wildcats.” The nickname quickly became popular with students and the media, and the University later officially adopted it. You’ll now see our Wildcat at pep rallies, on the sidelines during games, and on the court of field during pre-game and half-time entertainment.

UK’s mascot, the Wildcat, is a pivotal piece of pep rallies, pre-game shows and halftime entertainment. Click through for image source.

The University of Kentucky Wildcat.

Our sports teams are perennial conference and national powerhouses. The basketball program is among the most famous in the United States. The team has won more games than any other school (2,090), the second most championships (8), and has had the highest home game attendance for 10 of the last 11 years, averaging more than 23,000 people per game. There are currently 23 former Kentucky players on teams in the National Basketball Association, including the first overall draft picks in two of the last three years.

Perhaps the highest honor that can be bestowed on someone attending a Kentucky basketball game is to be tapped to be the “Y” when our cheerleaders spell out “K-e-n-t-u-c-k-y” with their bodies during the halftime show. You have to have accomplished something special in order to rate the “Y” slot. Among the folks I’ve seen do the “Y” at games I’ve attended are Muhammad Ali and Lebron James.

Over 23,000 fans pack Rupp Arena to watch the UK Men’s Basketball Team.Click through for image source.

25,000 fans pack Rupp Arena to cheer the UK Men’s Basketball Team.

Joining me among the ranks of UK alumni are numerous professional athletes, political leaders, scientists, and other prominent figures including Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan (Nobel Prize winner and the “father of modern genetics”), actors Ashley Judd and Harry Dean Stanton, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Pat Riley (National Basketball Association Hall of Fame member, wildly successful Head Coach of the LA Lakers, and current Head Coach of the Miami Heat), and astronaut Story Musgrave.

Before I conclude, I have to say that one of the University’s biggest strengths is its location in Lexington, at the heart of Kentucky’s beautiful, pastoral Bluegrass region. The place is a very special mix of urban and rural, cutting-edge and laid back, old and new, with lots of recreational offerings and much to explore.

Ping and white dogwood in bloom. Click through for image source.

Pink and white dogwood in bloom outside Lexington.

Nicknamed the “Horse Capital of the World” and “Thoroughbred City” because it is home to so many famous horse farms, Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky, with a population of approximately 300,000 people. Lexington ranks 10th among U.S. cities in terms of the college education rate, with 40% of all residents having at least a bachelor’s degree. Despite its size and sophistication, the city maintains a small town feel and charm.

Lexington Kentucky, a big city that has lost none of the ambiance of a small town.Click through for image source.

The Lexington central business district at sunset.

The lively bar, club, and restaurant scene of downtown Lexington is just a short walk from campus. Among my favorite hangouts were the “World Famous” Two Keys Tavern and Pazzo’s Pizza Pub. There is also live southern rock and country music at Redmond’s, savory southern fare at deSha’s Restaurant, and very popular happy hours at Cheapside Bar & Grill, which has a two-level outdoor patio.

Main Street in Downtown Lexington, packed with restaurants, boutiques and more.Click through for image source.

Main Street is lined with restaurants, clubs, and boutiques.

Food in Lexington tends toward traditional southern cuisine such as fried catfish, fried chicken, country fried steak, slow cooked pork, heaps of green vegetables, and corn bread. You can exercise off your meals in one of Lexington’s more than 100 public parks (which range in size from 8,719 square feet (810 square meters) to 659 acres (2.7 square kilometers). There are also 6 public golf courses, a public skate park for those x-gamers out there, the 734-acre (3 sq. km.) Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, and the beautiful Lexington Arboretum.

The Lexington Arboretum on the grounds of the University. Click through for image source.

A quiet corner in the Lexington Arboretum on the grounds of the University.

I particularly enjoyed Lexington’s multitude of arts and music festivals, including the Mayfest Arts Festival, Festival of the Bluegrass, Kentucky Crafted: The Market, Roots and Heritage Festival, Kentucky Women Writers Conference, and the Beaux Arts Ball. Fourth of July celebrations in Lexington are not to be missed. They go on for several days as the city comes together for fireworks, historical reenactments, concerts, and more.

The Lexington History Center. Click through for image source.

The Lexington History Center, one of the city’s many historical structures.

As much as there is to do, Lexington retains the atmosphere of southern comfort above all else. Rolling hills and pastoral countryside cover the area around the city. Whether driving, biking, or strolling, you’ll enjoy the natural beauty, sense of tranquility, and gentility charm of the environs. I know I did.

One of the many horse farms surrounding Lexington, where new stallions are bred and trained. Click through for image source.

A horse farm outside the city.

The farms outside Lexington produce many of the horses that race in the Kentucky Derby, the largest spectator sports event in the world with over 170,000 people in attendance. Picturesque wooden fences are often all that separate famous Derby-winning thoroughbreds from passersby. If you have an interest in racing, there are several courses to visit including Keeneland, a National Historic Landmark that draws thousands of spectators for its two annual one-month-long racing seasons.

Most of the racing scenes for Sea Biscuit were shot at Keeneland, in part, because its appearance remains largely the same as race courses from the time period covered by the film (the 1930s). Click through for image source.

At Keeneland.

Of course, Kentucky is also world-famous as the birthplace of bourbon, the popular American whiskey. More than 97% of the world’s bourbon still comes from Central Kentucky. Some of the more famous brands include Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey. Those and the other iconic distilleries are located on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail which runs past Lexington. Locals and tourists alike bike or drive along the trail, stopping to sample different styles of bourbon at the various distilleries. I highly recommend the excursion.

Barrels of whiskey lining a hallway of a warehouse on the bourbon trail.Click through for image source.

Barrels of whiskey lining a hallway of a warehouse on the bourbon trail.

Take it from me, Kentucky is a great place to visit. There’s something for everyone, whatever your interests … vibrant culture, rich history and heritage, beautiful landscapes, exciting recreation, great food, legendary spirits, and lots more. For additional information about the Lexington area and the rest of the State, please take a look at Kentucky’s official travel website, www.kentuckytourism.com.

Back roads to explore. Click through for image source.

There are many paths to explore in the rolling hills of Kentucky.

Finally, if you couldn’t already tell, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the University of Kentucky. If you’re a prospective student interested in a big school experience in a small town atmosphere, I think you will too. So please keep UK in mind as you consider your tertiary school options.

- CK

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For more details about the University of Kentucky, specific fields of study, and how to apply, check out the school’s main website. And of course, feel free to email the Embassy’s Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov if you would like more information or have specific questions.

Next up in this series is Rollins College in Florida, one of the most highly regarded liberal arts colleges in the South. As always, let me know if you have suggestions for future university features or other education topics thereafter.