“I’m doing this for both of us.” UK grad earns Social Work degree, honoring veteran husband

Tracy Garret's remarkable journey back to the college at 54 is full of unyielding resolve, tragedy, and transformation.
Toni (left), Tracy (right), and their son AJ (top)

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LEXINGTON, KY (April 18, 2024) – At the University of Kentucky, Tracy Garrett’s return to college is a narrative of transformation. At 54, Garrett is not the traditional student one might expect to see in a Bachelor of Social Work program. Her journey is unique, her resolve unshakable, and her story interlaced with moments of deep personal change.

“I’ve bled blue since I knew what that meant,” Garrett said with a sense of nostalgia and determination. “It’s always been my dream to have a degree from UK. At one time, I thought that was completely out of reach for me, but now I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Garrett’s first stint at UK began in 1988, a year that would set the stage for her lifelong connection with the university. As a sophomore, she stepped into the rhythm of the marching band and alongside, found her life’s partner. Yet, with the unexpected twist of early pregnancy, her educational aspirations were put on pause.

Years rolled on, filled with family life and a move prompted by her husband’s Navy career.

“We always said this was the best thing that ever happened to our family” she recalls on these transformative years. “My husband was really proud to serve… and it opened so many doors for us.”

In 2018, Garrett found her way back to Kentucky, and with her family, embraced the role of foster parents, living their belief that love could build bridges to healing for children in need of a home.

“We always said we were a house full of love,” Garrett said. “That was our family motto.”

Then, as the pandemic closed doors, it simultaneously opened a new one for Garrett. Her husband’s encouragement was the nudge she needed. “He simply said, ‘You’re going back to school,’ and somehow, that made perfect sense,” she recalls.

Garrett describes her decision to re-enroll at UK as “the decision that changed my life.” It wasn’t just a return to academia; it was a reaffirmation of dreams and the love that had carried her through the years, and a community of support.

Tragedy struck in December 2023, when Garrett faced the loss of her husband. The impact was devastating.

“In a single moment, my world turned upside down,” she shares with a mix of pain and strength. “I lost my husband and I knew I couldn’t continue to foster.”

The subsequent decision to close her home to foster care was one of the most difficult she’s ever made, but it was essential for her well-being. Through the midst of her sorrow, Garrett’s commitment to her social work studies never wavered, bolstered by the support of her cohort at the College of Social Work.

“My cohort immediately had my back with everything I needed. This semester has been chaos – I see the finish line, I’m almost at the end, I feel bittersweet, and I know my husband’s watching me from above and he’s still cheering me on,” said Garrett.

Looking ahead, Garrett envisions a new beginning as a social worker dedicated to veterans. “Serving those who’ve served us is how I’ll honor his memory,” Garrett articulates. “My husband’s pride in his Navy service is my inspiration.”

With her impending graduation, Garrett not only honors her past but also paves the way for her future. Her advice to others contemplating a return to education is unequivocal: “Take the step. Education is a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.”

As Tracy Garrett stands at the threshold of graduation, her story at UK concludes one chapter and commences another. Hers is a narrative of life’s unexpected paths, of persisting through adversity, and the power of education to ignite hope anew. It is a poignant reminder that it is never too late to embrace change and leave a lasting impact.

Tracy Garrett’s story at UK is one of heart, of resilience, and a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

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For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.