They pile into buses for the long ride to Lexington, sometimes leaving home as early as 3 a.m. When they arrive, they're treated to a full day of activities on campus, starting with breakfast and continuing well into the afternoon. It's all part of a unique program called Come “see blue.” for Yourself, designed to motivate a desire in these students to become future Wildcats.
The program is the distillation of 20 years of concerted recruiting efforts. It began in 1992 as an initiative by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, now the Office for Institutional Diversity, to increase enrollment of minority groups that were historically underrepresented on campus, particularly black students. Emmett "Buzz" Burnam, UK's director for diversity recruitment, has provided leadership to the program since the beginning.
"There was a widespread — although by no means unanimous — perception back then among African Americans that 'UK is not for us,'" Burnam said. "We started out by asking 690 black UK students why they chose to come here. And what we found out, time and again, was that it really made a difference when they were able to come here and see for themselves what UK had to offer them personally."
Burnam found that many African-American students, even those who came from bigger cities like Louisville, were accustomed to having the support of smaller, tight-knit communities — in their schools, their churches, and their neighborhoods. They wanted to know that if they came to UK they would not feel alone or out of place. They wanted to know what sort of support was available to them if they came here. They wanted to know where students like them go to study, what they do for fun and recreation, and where they go when they just want to hang out.
"When you come to a new school — anybody coming into a new place, but especially as a minority — you want to see people who look like you, who talk like you, who understand you, who like the same kinds of things as you," Burnam said. "Part of the university experience is being exposed to new and different kinds of people and ideas and ways of life, but nobody wants to feel like they are out there on their own. It's important to know that you're welcome."
So, Burnam invited prospective students to come see for themselves, and he set out to showcase diversity at UK, paying particular attention to the special interests of black students. The first Come “see blue.” for Yourself events were held in 1992, with about 200 students from a handful of Louisville high schools visiting UK's campus over four separate dates.
Over the past two decades those numbers have grown steadily. During the current school year, there have been 12 Come “see blue.” for Yourself days, with 3,338 college-ready students attending from 96 different schools, churches and community programs, including 10 out-of-state schools. Thanks in part to this effort, African American enrollment at UK has also grown in recent years. This school year there are a total of 1,839 African American undergraduates students enrolled.
Students who come to a "Come “see blue.” for Yourself" day first attend a morning information session, which kicks off with a motivational pep talk from Buzz Burnam himself. The session is packed full of helpful information about the application process, scholarship opportunities (including the William C. Parker Diversity Scholarship Program), other student financial aid options and important deadlines.
Visiting students learn about academic and social resources available to them on campus, including CARES (the Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services). The morning ends with the Spirit Team, made up of volunteers from the Black Student Union, coming in to teach the UK fight song.
Next, the students go to the Grand Ballroom of the Student Center, where tables are set up with information and representatives from different academic programs, services and organizations on campus. Students are free to walk about at their own pace, pick up materials, and ask questions as they go. At lunchtime, they are entertained with performances by members of historically black Greek-letter organizations and the Black Voices gospel choir.
In the afternoon, the students take a tour of campus, and many take advantage of the opportunity to sit in on classes or meet with professors. Then ("hopefully exhausted from everything we've shown them and done with them," Burnam says), they get back on the bus and head home.
Mahogony Livers, a family science and communication sophomore from Louisville, remembers when she came to "see blue." for herself in 2011, when she was a senior at Seneca High School. She says she was interested in UK, but was also attracted to Kentucky State University, a historically black college.
"I had my UK flag and K State pom-poms in my car," Livers said. "I had a mini-checklist in my head. I knew if I came to UK I would basically be coming here by myself. So I wanted to make sure there were resources here for me. And I was really involved in high school, so I wanted to make sure there were ways to get involved here."
Livers said she was impressed when she found out about the scholarships available to her, and about resources such as CARES, Student Support Services, and free tutoring in The Study. But it was seeing and interacting with other students that made the biggest impression on her.
"I saw UK had an infinity of opportunities to do whatever you want, based on your interests," she said. "What really got me was when they had the black Greek organizations perform during lunch."
Livers says she also had a good time on the tour.
"I really liked my tour guide," she said. "It was nice to be able to have somebody who could relate to me, honestly, and answer my questions. We kept in touch, and we're actually good friends now."
Livers, who is now recruitment co-chair of the Black Student Union and an Undergraduate Studies student ambassador, takes part in the Come “see blue.” for Yourself days as part of the Spirit Team, and she makes a point of finding out when students are visiting from Seneca so that she can come greet them and personally welcome them to campus.
"My high school was majority black people, and when I first visited here, to be honest, I didn't see many before the event started," she said. "Then I saw people I recognized from my high school, and that was a relief. Once I walked through the Student Center, I started to see just how much diversity there is on campus."