Students and their families flocked to Rupp Arena on Sunday for a record-breaking University of Kentucky graduation.
Almost 2,500 undergraduates and more than 500 graduate and professional students participated in three commencement ceremonies. Overall, about 3,200 undergraduate, 1,110 graduate and 450 professional degrees were awarded.
Among the sea of blue graduation caps was former UK football player and current Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, who is the first in his family to graduate college. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who attended the Kentucky Derby in Louisville on Saturday, was at Rupp Arena to cheer for his teammate as Cobb walked across the stage.
During the ceremony, some students savored a moment for which they’d fought tooth and nail, while others found themselves in a place they’d never dreamed they’d be.
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For Shalara Wells, who earned a degree in animal science, the fact that graduation day fell on Mother’s Day made the event even more meaningful.
Wells became a mother during her junior year of high school. For some that might have made attending college difficult or impossible, but with the help of her own mother, Wells didn’t let it slow her down.
After graduating high school, Wells; her son, Kyson; and her mother all moved to Lexington from Madisonville so Wells could begin school at UK. Her mother, Diana, worked as a nurse for Hospice of the Bluegrass.
But in August 2014, Diana Wells found out she had terminal cancer.
Shalara Wells, with help from her grandmother, cared for her mother while balancing classes at UK and working. Her mother died Jan. 1, 2015.
“You just have to keep going, you just have to fight,” Wells, 22, said. “Even if you’re faced with so many struggles, you have to keep your mind on the end goal.”
Without her mother, Wells said, she would not be where she is now.
“She was my backbone, my support,” Wells said.
Wells said she now does the same for her son, who turned 5 in April. “I sacrifice a lot so the both of us can have a better life,” she said.
In June, Wells will begin a one-year accelerated master’s program at UK. She hopes to one day run a conservation and rehabilitation organization for exotic and endangered animals, a goal that some have told her is ambitious.
“If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough,” Wells said.
Oscar Portillo, 34, decided to go after his own dream six years ago while was cleaning a stall at a Lexington horse farm.
“I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life,” Portillo said.
He moved to Los Angeles from Mexico when he was 13. When he was 17 he moved to Lexington to live with a relative. Shortly afterward, the relative left the country, leaving Portillo to do everything on his own for more than a year.
“I was living in a farm house by myself; the whole house was empty,” Portillo said. “I didn’t have anything.”
When he was 28, Portillo began the process of getting his GED. After that, while still working full time at the horse farm, he attended Bluegrass Community & Technical College, where he earned high grades that enabled him to attend UK on a scholarship.
When he first got to UK, Portillo said, he didn’t understand the differences between 100, 200 and 300 level classes, so he scheduled a difficult 300 level course his first semester. Portillo failed his first exam and knew he had to figure out how to do better. He was failing the class at midterm but ended the semester with an A.
“I really enjoyed what I was learning,” said Portillo, who majored in marketing. “My mind was getting so much wider and I was learning so many things other than just work and business.”
That doesn’t mean the workload didn’t sometimes wear him down. He would work at the horse farm every morning, attend classes during the day, work again in the evenings and then study every night.
“There were times I’d say to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Portillo said. When that happened, he would walk away from the books for a while. But he said he would always get back to them the next day.
He is now a father of three and married to a U.S. citizen. On Sunday, Portillo said he cried for a few seconds as he crossed the stage at Rupp Arena and became a UK graduate.
“Not in a million years did I expect to reach this point,” Portillo said. “I just can’t be more happy and proud of what I’ve done.”
Portillo has accepted a position at Cintas Corp. in Louisville.
He is a legal U.S. resident and is in the process of becoming a citizen. He said lately he’s heard a lot of negativity about people who have moved to the United States from Mexico, and he would like to be seen as an example of people who do things the right way.
“A lot of people try to contribute the best way they can by behaving well and doing what they’re supposed to,” Portillo said. “I’m here and I want to do what’s right for the place where I work and live.”