Settling for More: UK Grad Overcomes Substance Misuse, Loss to Become Prevention Specialist

Have you ever pictured a moment so vividly you could feel it ­— the joy or sadness that accompanied what you were wearing and who you were with?

For Luke Ramey, there’s one moment in particular.

He’s dressed in a blue cap and gown while proudly walking across the Rupp Arena stage — putting one foot in front of the other until his outstretched hand reaches that coveted diploma. He’s chatting with mentors who helped guide him to success. But the celebration doesn’t stop after the tassels have been turned. There are family members giving warm hugs without warning and genuine smiles being captured in countless photos.

“I thought about how I might hang those pictures in my home and office,” Ramey said. “But as the late John Lennon once said, ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.’”

Ramey is no stranger to life not going according to plan. Behind every success, he has a story filled with struggle.

Now 37 years old, Ramey recalls growing up in Winchester, Kentucky, in a comfortable home surrounded by loving parents. But a traumatic experience as a toddler would have a profound impact moving forward.

“I was sexually assaulted when I was only 4 years old. At the time, I did not understand how the assault affected or influenced my thought processes or behaviors,” Ramey said. “But I did have a strong intuition that something about me was different from the rest of my peers.”

Ramey had difficulty maintaining positive relationships. In high school, he often felt awkward and uncomfortable — even around his close friends. As that social discomfort intensified, Ramey found a coping mechanism.

“I’ve struggled with a substance use disorder for most of my adult life,” he said. “When alcohol and drugs were introduced to me, I found a way out of the discomfort.”

Ramey’s life began to spiral out of control. That became even more apparent during a tragic incident following his high school graduation — a confrontation the local newspaper labeled “a drug deal gone bad.”

“My friend got involved in a conflict that ended up with him being thrown from the car,” Ramey explained. “I was one of a few people that held him in the middle of the street as the EMS arrived, and it was clear to me — he was not going to make it.”

At just 18 years old, Ramey had experienced immense loss, which led to crippling anxiety. “I spent the next 13 years of my life running from physical, mental and emotional pain.”

Falling victim to the relentless grip of substance misuse —​ Ramey admits resigning himself to a life not worth living.

*****

For Ramey, the crash of hitting rock bottom was painful — but necessary.

“On September 29, 2013, I stopped using drugs and alcohol and have been sober ever since.”

That was just the beginning of Ramey’s upward climb. While working in a treatment center, he discovered his true passion and purpose — helping others achieve and sustain lasting recovery.

“I took an entry level social work course at Bluegrass Community Technical College, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Ramey said. “The ability to help and to serve people and communities on so many different levels attracted me, and I felt as though I finally found a true calling.”

Determined to better his life — and the lives of those in the same position as he once was —​ Ramey transferred to the University of Kentucky College of Social Work in the fall of 2018.

He felt more prepared than ever to earn a college degree. But going back to school wasn’t without challenges. As a man with many titles — full-time employee, devoted husband and dedicated father of four — time was hard to come by.

“Sometimes, I was awake for more than 24 hours. I would take small naps in my car between classes,” Ramey recalled. “There were times I didn’t think I was going to be able to continue working as much as I was and be able to complete school.”

Ramey’s wife and young children served as his inspiration. And their support became a valuable source of strength. “Without the support of my loving wife, children, family and friends, I don’t know that I would have completed,” he said. “They all pushed me to succeed.”

Ramey also gives credit to his “second family” for helping him achieve academic success.

“All of the faculty in the College of Social Work were incredibly helpful along my educational journey,” he said. “The educators and advisors provided an environment for me to learn in which I felt safe, confident and encouraged.”

Ramey’s journey at UK is far from over. He is currently employed as a prevention specialist with the HEALing Communities Study, which leverages existing resources and initiatives, in partnership with communities, to implement strategies and set evidence-based standards that will become a national model for fighting the opioid epidemic.

“Luke’s journey to the CoSW is such an inspiration to the UK community,” Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, said. “His persistence and perseverance are a powerful of example of how individuals can leverage their life experiences for a common good.” 

This fall, Ramey will begin working toward his master’s degree with the goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed certified drug and alcohol counselor.

“The CoSW has not only prepared me to be successful professionally, but they have all helped me to succeed in life. They set the example of advocacy, compassion and diligence,” he continued. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Lexington, the dean, faculty and staff have poured their hearts into redesigning curriculums and regulations to coincide with new social norms. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that each and every one of us has the resources we need to finish our educational journey.”

*****

Ramey may never get the Commencement ceremony he so vividly pictured. As a result of COVID-19, those congratulatory hugs and handshakes will have to wait.

“A moment of clarity came to me — there might not be a better way for a social worker to start off their career than with an act of love and humanity, such as social distancing,” he said.

Ramey’s willing to do what social workers do best — protect the vulnerable. But when it comes to pushing boundaries and pursuing goals, he’s encouraging others never to settle.

“You can and will achieve your dreams if you’re just willing to reach for it and accept the help that is available.”

Celebrating Our Students

While students around the globe are wrapping up their finals and preparing for graduation, the platform for recognizing students, and their accomplishments, has shifted.

In April, the College of Social Work (CoSW) held the 2020 Honors and Awards Ceremony. The ceremony, which occurred virtually, was live-streamed on YouTube.

During the ceremony, several awards were presented. BASW student Sabri Williams received the Dean’s Service Award. Students Tanya Brewer, Rebekah Davis, and Luke Ramey were named Outstanding BASW Student awardees. The Outstanding MSW Student award was given to Travis Adams, William ‘Ace’ Jackson III, and Shaniek Tose. Ace Jackson III and Luke Ramey were the student speakers for the event.
 
To finish the semester at such an unprecedented time is truly commendable. Please join CoSW in congratulating all of our students for an outstanding semester and THANKING all those who made their journey possible.

CoSW faculty and staff celebrated the accomplishments
of BASW, MSW, and Ph.D. students during a virtual
2020 Honors and Awards Ceremony.

Incoming graduate student awarded UK’s Lyman T. Johnson Fellowship.

In an effort to contribute to the mission of enhancing diversity, the University of Kentucky established the Lyman T. Johnson Postdoctoral Fellowships to support postdoctoral fellows in graduate and professional areas. The fellowships are named in honor of UK’s first African American graduate student, Lyman T. Johnson.

Incoming Master of Social Work (MSW) student Quinten Harris and current student Alisia Taylor Sullivan has been awarded this tremendous fellowship. Sullivan is completing her first year of the fellowship.

The LTJ Fellowship is awarded to first-year or continuing graduate students. Candidates for eligibility contribute to the University of Kentucky’s compelling interest in diversity, is a first-generation college student and exemplifies leadership, extracurricular activities, awards and recognition, and/or community service. 

Fellowship recipients pursue an individualized research program under the mentorship of one or more UK professors and actively participate in departmental and professional research-related activities. Fellows play a lead role in designing, developing and implementing research programs that contribute to a department’s overall graduate education and research mandates.

The fellowship provides a $47,476 stipend plus benefits. In addition, the fellow receives $2,000 for support of research activities. Fellowships are available for up to two years. The initial appointment is for 12 months, but recipients may apply for a second year.

CoSW Goes Fully Virtual

Over the past month, college campuses around the globe have had to transform their curriculum to meet the rapidly changing nature of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The College of Social Work (CoSW) was no exception. As students were preparing for uneventful spring breaks, faculty and staff were busy transforming their classes and rethinking field education following the announcement from President Eli Capilouto to suspend all in-person instruction through the end of the spring semester. Not long after, Capilouto made the announcement that summer courses would also be taken virtually.

To make the transition, the CoSW, like many other colleges, moved its classes online using channels such as Zoom — a video conferencing platform — as part of an effort to de-densify campus. 

Faculty and teaching staff were prepped on how to use the software required to make the transition to online learning be as smooth as possible before students returned from spring break.

“Identifying supports for faculty to transition to virtual classes was important because once faculty have a sense of normalcy, then they can start to build that for our students as well,” stated Kalea Benner, Associate Dean for the CoSW.

Extended instructional design and technology support was offered by Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation (TLAI). The TLAI brought resources such as planning strategies, teaching tools and help with Canvas and Zoom to educators’ fingertips.

Through newly adapted Canvas and Zoom technologies, faculty and staff have been able to virtually conduct live classes, provide Ph.D. students a platform to defend their dissertations, and assign coursework with integrated grading capabilities, creating a “new normal” for everyone involved.

While the transition for faculty has been mostly positive, the modification for students seems to be one that is ever-evolving. 

“None of this would be possible without the tireless work of our faculty and staff. Their commitment to ensuring the well-being of our community, academic and otherwise, is unparalleled,” Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, said. “Moreover, I want to acknowledge the work of our students. I am genuinely in awe of the perseverance they have shown in the face of this unique time.”

The move to an online format for classroom instruction has deeply impacted the campus community. Returning to classes, although they may be online, provides students with a sense of normalcy, creating a platform for students to connect with their peers, faculty members, and campus. 

The Learn Anywhere website has been created to further help students with the move. The website features online course tips, academic support, and virtual wellness resources, among other things. The CoSW’s website has also been a source of information for students – providing a calendar of virtual events such as drop-in advising, meet and greets with program directors, and more.

With students at the core of all decisions made at the CoSW, the effort to move coursework online is about creating the opportunity for instruction while also ensuring that students can complete the semester while adjusting to the “new normal.” In pursuit of that objective, especially during times of crisis, the entire CoSW community has been flexible and adapted to the challenge. 

Although this is an unprecedented time for the world, CoSW proves to be resilient and up for the challenge because social work was built for this.

#LearnAnywhereUKY, #TeachAnywhereUKY, #WorkAnywhereUKY

Shyan Stivers

University of Kentucky (UKY) student, Shyan Stivers, was recently awarded a Legislative Research Commission (LRC) fellowship through the 2020-2021 Graduate Fellows Program in Frankfort, KY. Stivers, a student in the Bachelor of Social Work program at the College of Social Work, will begin the fellowship in May 2020.

Each year the LRC awards 5-10 fellowships to graduate students in law, public administration, public policy, and social work. Fellows are assigned to work with a non-partisan legislative committee. Stivers will be placed with a social worker within a health and welfare committee.

Typical duties for graduate fellows include drafting bills, conducting policy research, and providing support for legislative committee meetings. A senior LRC staff person is assigned to supervise and mentor each fellow. Fellows like Stivers will continue taking their graduate classes while also handling their fellowship duties.

“I was really excited when I found out, especially since I am the only social worker they took,” Stivers said. “You don’t often get people from this background.”

LRC recruits graduate students each year from schools across Kentucky through a competitive application and interview process. Stivers was the only graduate student to be picked with a social work background.

If you are interested in applying to the LRC Graduate Fellows Program, please visit: https://legislature.ky.gov/Visitors/Pages/Postsecondary-Internship.aspx

Self-Care Lab Inks New Agreement with Researchers at University of Bucharest

In October, the CoSW announced yet another global partnership to continue its work examining the self-care and wellness practices of helping professionals around the world within their Self-Care Lab (SCL).

This new partnership, which now includes researchers from the University of Bucharest, adds to the already growing list of established formal research partnerships within the Global Self-Care Initiative, with investigators and academic institutions in Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Finland, Ethiopia, and Finland, to name a few. This new research will examine cultural nuances in self-care practices among social workers in Romania.

“Self-care is a concept that has no geographical boundaries. These types of partnerships allow for a more robust examination of self-care practices and it deepens our understanding of how to support helping professionals to engage in these practices” explained College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller.  

The Global Self-Care Initiative is part of a bigger picture at the CoSW. In Spring 2018, CoSW received a grant to launch the SCL. The SCL, which officially opened its doors on June 1, 2018, is specifically dedicated to empirically investigating self-care among helping professionals, with broad ranging self-care research and education among social workers, educators, nurses, law enforcement and other helping professionals. In doing so, the lab seeks to address potentially toxic employment conditions.

“We care about helping professionals and we care about the populations they help. We want to support them in providing the best professional service possible,” Miller said. “We can do that through rigorous clinical research and innovation related to self-care.”

Among a host of practice interventions and clinical trials, the SCL affords students, faculty and staff from across campus the opportunity to engage in scholarship and research directly related to self-care among helping professionals.

The ultimate goal is to help those who are in the helping profession understand self-care does not and should not have to be sacrificed.

The SCL is the first known entity to be explicitly dedicated to examining self-care among helping professionals. The Global Self-Care Initiative is the largest-scale examination of self-care practices among practitioners. “The empirical work emanating from the SCL has really reframed approaches to self-care and wellness among social workers, specifically, and helping professionals, more generally,” Miller concluded. “The international scope of these works demonstrate the reach and impact of CoSW researchers, students, and staff. I’m excited to see what comes next.”

1LT Jamie Webb

Army First Lieutenant (1LT), and College of Social Work (CoSW) master of social work (MSW) student, Jamie Webb, has been recognized as the National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) – Alamo Area Student Social Worker of the Year.

“I am humbled and honored to receive this award,” said Webb. “I chose the social work profession because I have a sincere passion to support individuals who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. It has been a privilege to be a part of a range of service activities while studying in the Army-UK MSW Program. I feel incredibly lucky to have a supportive command team that empowers me to be creative in my service and who allows me to take risks for the benefit of others. I have grown as a student, a soldier, and a person because of their support and encouragement.”

Annually, the NASW – Alamo Area selects one student to receive the award. Criteria for the award include outstanding academic achievement, demonstrated commitment ethical social work practice and to the Code of Ethics, leadership on and off-campus, political and legislative engagement, and contribution to a positive image of the social work profession. 

“We are extremely proud of 1LT Webb and the work that has led to her receiving this award,” said Jay Miller, dean of CoSW. “1LT Webb’s commitment to professional service epitomizes the mission of CoSW.” 

1LT Webb actualizes the criteria of the NASW student award to an exceptional level.

Jamie with her husband Matthew and their children,
Acassia, Atticus and Solana.

In addition to serving in the U.S. Army, she the president of the MSW program’s Student Association has led initiatives to provide much-needed school supplies to at-risk elementary school students in the San Antonio area and volunteers with hospice and San Antonio Big Brothers and Big Sisters, among other service endeavors. 

Webb is part of CoSW’s one-of-a-kind graduate program that was launched in partnership with the Department of Defense in October 2016. The program is housed at a satellite campus within the Army’s Medical Center of Excellence at Fort Sam Houston. CoSW is also home to the Military Behavioral Health Lab, which generates empirical knowledge and tests clinical interventions aimed at addressing mental health and wellness issues that affect active-duty, reserve, and veteran military populations and their families.

1LT Webb is slated to graduate with her MSW in April. 

To learn more about the UK ARMY MSW program or the Military Behavioral Health Lab, you can contact Kaitlyn Brooks or Lindsey Piercy.

*************************************************************************************

For over 80 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work has been a leader in social work. Over the last academic year, our extramural research grant folio has increased 117%, student enrollment has grown by 20%, and our first-time social work licensing pass rates rank well above national averages. These metrics, and others, are a tangible symbol of our unwavering commitment to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.