Randall Stevens was a shy kid from Pikeville when he was chosen for the second class of the Kentucky Governor's Scholars Program in the summer of 1984. It literally changed his life.
"I think I became me in those five weeks of that program," Stevens said. "It's a huge confidence builder. It's a social awakening with an academic background that really develops leadership."
The experience inspired Stevens to study computers and architecture at the University of Kentucky, he said. Since then, Stevens has created several software programs and the companies to produce and market them. He also started Base 163, an incubator work space for Lexington technology entrepreneurs.
Stevens has met many other Governor's Scholars over the years whose experiences were similar to his. That got him thinking about the potential of an alumni network, both for the former scholars and for Kentucky's future.
He recently helped start the Governor's Scholars Program Alumni Association, which will have its first gathering Sept. 27 and 28 at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. The event is affiliated with the annual Idea Festival there that week.
Speakers at the event include several former scholars: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Northern Kentucky; Drew Curtis, founder of the online humor site Fark.com; Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington's Downtown Development Authority; and Rebecca Self, founder of FoodChain, an urban-agriculture nonprofit in Lexington.
Former scholars interested in attending the event or becoming affiliated with the alumni group can get more information at Facebook.com/gspsync or GSPsync.tumblr.com, or by email at email@example.com.
The Governor's Scholars Program began in 1983, with 230 rising high school seniors from across Kentucky who were brought together on Centre College's campus in Danville for a summer enrichment program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This summer, about 1,100 students participated on three college campuses.
Scholars are chosen through a competitive process. The program is free to them and is financed by state government and private donors. Governor's Scholars are eligible for big-dollar scholarships at virtually all of Kentucky's public and private colleges and universities.
Stevens figures that there are now 25,349 Governor's Scholars Alumni with three decades of accomplishments, life experiences and personal networks that could have enormous value. Simply publicizing what other former scholars are doing could spark ideas and create job opportunities.
The idea of the Governor's Scholars Program was to keep Kentucky's "best and brightest" from leaving the state. Surveys show that about half of all scholars now live here. But Stevens and others think that original goal was too narrow.
"It's not good to try to keep them in Kentucky," he said. "Just keep them connected to Kentucky."
For one thing, Stevens said, when scholars leave Kentucky to achieve their dreams, they can end up in good positions to help future scholars achieve theirs.
Former scholar Darlene Hunt of Lebanon Junction went to Britain, Chicago and Los Angeles on her way to becoming a successful actress, producer and television writer. Matt Cutts of Morehead went on from UK to earn a doctorate in computer science from North Carolina and is now a top executive at Google.
"Having a Matt Cutts at Google is better for the network than if he had stayed here," Stevens said.
Also, he said, Kentuckians often have a habit of achieving success elsewhere and moving back to home, bringing back knowledge and sometimes jobs and investment capital.
Some high-profile examples include Alan Hawse, a top executive with Cypress Semiconductor, whose move back from California led to creation of a technology development center in downtown Lexington. Self, the FoodChain founder, and her husband, Ben, moved back to Lexington from Boston after a company he helped start ran President Barack Obama's 2008 online campaign. He and three partners then started West Sixth Brewing Co.
"The network is more valuable than just having people here," Stevens said. The oldest scholars are now reaching mid-career and rising to positions of wealth and influence, he said. "The real power could be what happens when they do want to come back."