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Looking back: Reflections on a year with COVID-19

By Jill Smith
Executive Director, UK Alumni Association

March 17, 2020 might go down as the unluckiest St. Patrick’s Day in my lifetime.  A day that is usually filled with March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day festivities took a really strange turn in 2020.  It was exactly one month from the day that I started as the Executive Director of the UK Alumni Association and it marked the start of what would become our ‘new normal’ for the next year and then some.  My recollection of March 16-17, 2020 was the signing of about 20 ‘work from home’ arrangements in the wake of a worldwide pandemic.  Little did I know that a year later, our team of alumni relations professionals would still not be together in the King Alumni House.  We somewhat saw it coming the week before that ironically ended with Friday the 13th

The beginning of March 2020 started normally, with the conference basketball seasons for our men’s and women’s teams winding down and gearing up for the tournament and the alumni festivities that coincide with March Madness. The UK Alumni Association hosted our annual Great Teacher Awards Recognition Dinner and Program on Tuesday, March 3 at the Hyatt in downtown Lexington. Prior to the Senior Day men’s basketball game against Tennessee, our Great Teacher Award recipients were recognized on the floor of Rupp Arena.  On Saturday, March 6, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the state of Kentucky. The very next week, Grad Salute, a program that offers expectant graduates an opportunity to handle graduation preparation, was hosted at the King Alumni House. As the week went on, cases around our country and state continued to rise and we all saw new cancellations and closures announced daily.

On Wednesday, March 11, the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament began in Nashville. Our team was set to travel on Thursday, March 12 for SEC Tournament festivities, including the Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club’s pregame event where we were expecting over 500 attendees. The club had been planning this event for months, securing sponsorships, live music and giveaways to make the day special for UK alumni and fans. In the wake of the developments on Wednesday, March 11, we made the decision not to travel to Nashville from Lexington. Our staff huddled with our volunteers and explained the difficulty of the current situation and we all agreed that the pregame event should be cancelled. As it turned out, the remainder of the SEC Tournament was cancelled and ultimately the NCAA Tournament too. March Madness quickly became March Sadness. The weekend hit and I remember constantly pondering what the next week would bring.

Monday morning, we hosted our weekly staff meeting on Zoom, instead of in-person, just to be abundantly cautious given the uncertainty of the situation. Governor Andy Beshear had encouraged work from home arrangements and our management team was working on scenarios and possibilities. I began seeing requests and work from home arrangement forms come through on Monday and by Tuesday, I believe I signed one for almost every staff member. On Tuesday, March 17, I departed the King Alumni House without any knowledge of how long it would be until I returned to the building. Comparably, University of Kentucky students were on spring break the week of March 16 – 20 and they would not return to the classroom for the remainder of the school year.

As the calendar approached April, we had to revisit the many events and programs that were scheduled to take place in the spring. A highlight was to be the Hall of Distinguished Alumni, one of the UK Alumni Association’s most prize programs that occurs every five years. I remember agonizing over the decision to postpone the dinner and induction ceremony that was originally scheduled for April 16, 2020. As the days progressed, it became ever so clear that postponement was the right decision. And other decisions affected our staff the same way. But teamwork makes the dream work, and our team found many ways to pivot. Some COVID-19 UK Alumni Association highlights include:

  • Unemployment Insurance Webinar that engaged over 5,000 participants
  • First Saturday in May Virtual 5K that engaged over 1,300 participants and raised over $17,000 for the Basic Needs and Persistence Fund
  • The Class of 1970 letter to the Class of 2020, connecting two classes, 50 years apart who both missed their scheduled in-person Commencement
  • Prospective student letter writing campaign that totaled over 4,000 letters written by alumni
  • Great Teachers on Great Challenges, a five-part virtual lecture series featuring UK Alumni Association Great Teacher Award winners focusing on a COVID related issue
  • One Day for UK Giving Day efforts that resulted in the endowing of the Lyman T. Johnson UK Alumni Scholarship Fund
  • Establishment of a new UK Alumni Club in China through virtual outreach
  • Signature events and activities that were held virtually, including Homecoming/Golden Wildcat Reunion, Legacy Pumpkin Festival, Big Blue Santa, Great Teachers Award Selection, Scholarship Recognition, Lyman T. Johnson Awards Program
  • Volunteer engagement such as Board of Directors Meetings, the establishment of the new Leadership Advisory Council, alumni club happy hours, and scholarship donor stewardship meetings
  • Regular delivery schedule of the quarterly Kentucky Alumni magazine, monthly and quarterly electronic newsletters and the launch of our Alumni Directory project
  • Expansion of the Job Club Program, a bi-weekly Alumni Career Services program that has engaged alumni from 30 states since it was transitioned to a virtual format

Last month, another March 17 rolled around. 2020 is a year I always looked forward to because in part, it just sounded clever when you said it aloud. And now that it truly is in our hindsight (pun intended), it went nothing like we expected. However, we learned, we grew, we persevered and we moved forward under circumstances that were immensely difficult at times. As Coach Cal often says, “I like my team.” And that team certainly includes a staff that found ways to be creative in order to continue to engage UK alumni. But that team also includes you, our alumni. No matter your era, location, or career, we are glad to have you in the alumni fold. I have found tremendous joy in hearing about our alumni who have made a difference in their corner of the world during the last year.

On Thursday, March 11, I had an appointment to receive the COVID-19 booster shot at Kroger Field. I had to get in line with 12 minutes remaining in the Mississippi State vs. Kentucky men’s basketball game during the SEC Tournament. As I left my car, I quickly grabbed my iPad and hooked it to my hot spot so I could catch the last few minutes of that game. I made some new friends in line and we did what UK alumni and fans do during March Madness… We cheered for our team. Our team came up a little short that day but we were cheering for a different reason. Since coming to the university as a student 20 years ago, I’ve missed very few home football games. Caturdays are special and I can recall many special moments that have taken place within the corners of Kroger Field.

On Thursday, March 11, I experienced a different kind of memory as I received the second vaccine. I thought about Wildcats from all parts of campus who worked together to carry out the land grant and flagship mission of the University of Kentucky through the formation of the vaccine clinic at Kroger Field. I thought about the future football Caturdays that could be full of memories for others when we can gather again safely.  One of my favorite lines from the UK Fight Song is, “Ev’ry Wildcat Star will shine!” Over the last year, Wildcat Stars have shined… in healthcare, in the classroom, in technology and in countless other ways. I am honored to serve alongside each of you in this role. May our Wildcats continue to shine!

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