Eight UK student-athletes arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. First up are Jarrod Polson and Stephanie Fox on their long voyage to Africa and their first day serving.
Jarrod Polson (men's basketball)
We started our journey to Ethiopia around 10 a.m. ET on Monday morning. We drove to the Cincinnati airport where we took off for Washington, D.C., arriving around 430 p.m. After checking into the hotel near the airport, we had the wonderful privilege of taking a three-hour tour around D.C in the "fun van," as our driver called it. We were able to see most of the famous attractions including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and even got a glimpse of the White House. During the tour, we were fed both a countless amount of information and some cheese puffs that were out of this world. Once done with that escapade, we proceeded to partake in the "last supper," as we liked to call it. We chose to go to the Cheesecake Factory and were not disappointed. Knowing that we probably wouldn't have an American meal for at least a week, we took the honor of each ordering an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. After stuffing our faces, we came back to the hotel and rested up for the journey ahead.
The next day we woke up around 6:30 a.m. so we could catch our 9:15 a.m. flight. After purchasing a comfortable neck pillow and a hearty bagel breakfast, we boarded the plane and began our 13-hour flight to Ethiopia. Fortunately, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting. The seats were pretty spread apart and after watching three movies, taking a few naps and reading a little bit, we finally landed in Africa promptly and safely. It took a while to get out of the airport because we had to go through customs. Once the particulars were done, we checked into the Addis Guest House. It didn't take long to see such a culture change from America to Ethiopia. One of the big things that I wasn't even expecting was the driving. Ethiopia is actually a very busy place to drive, and it doesn't help that there are hardly any lines on the road and people literally are walking in and out of traffic, even on the "highways." We quickly learned that it is kind of a free for all, as drivers do not stop for pedestrians, even if they are literally a few feet away from them. I also should mention that I heard more car honks today alone than I have in my entire life.
Anyways, after getting settled into our rooms we ate a quick breakfast right there at the guest house and got ready for the day. We drove to one of the poorer areas in Ethiopia and helped out with covering a woman's house with plastic as it wasn't keeping the rain and wind out very effectively. A few of us went into the house and that's when it really hit me how underprivileged some of the people are. This house was about the size of a bedroom and was occupied by a few sheets and blankets for a bed, some old pots and pans and that's about it. It was hard not to feel bad for the woman, but the crazy part was just how joyful she seemed to be and thankful for what we were doing. Talk about a wakeup call!
My favorite part of the day by far was getting to meet my new buddy Alamiyoo. Funny story: As I was hammering some nails into the wood to keep the plastic up, a little 10-year-old boy came up to me and pretty much showed me how it was done. I'll be honest, I was a little mad at first because he was showing me up and making me look pretty worthless, but we soon became really good friends. I got to play a lot of "games" with him (mainly raising my hand up and seeing how high he could reach it or teaching him how to do the "Dougie") . Alamiyoo and all the other children we got to play with really taught us a good lesson. Here they are living in houses with dirt floors and plastic walls, hungry and thirsty most of the day, and they were some of the most joyous people I have ever met. I can think of so many times where I complain about the littlest things, and these kids have nothing and still have huge smiles on their faces. Today as a whole was very shocking, and I'm certain that the people of Ethiopia are going to help us out way more than we could ever even think of helping them, simply through the joy they show in the worst of circumstances.
Stephanie Fox (women's tennis)
We started out adventure in Ethiopia when we arrived at the airport at 7:30 a.m. Many of us got very little sleep but were still ready and excited for the day ahead. We arrived at our hotel - The Guest House - and after breakfast headed to work.
Our job was to insert plastic wrapping around two houses that helps keep wind and rain out. This is very important because it is winter in Ethiopia and rains nearly every day! The people were very grateful and it was a great time working with them to help improve their living situation as best we could.
The families were great and I think a lot of us would agree a huge highlight of the day was the children we spent time with at the houses. They were all vibrant and full of energy! I can already tell this trip is going to help each of us grow and I'm so thankful to experience this with other UK athletes. Can't wait to experience the rest of the trip!
With another year in the books, the University of Kentucky athletic department continues to advance toward its goal of building a comprehensive program that excels in all areas.
On Thursday, word arrived that UK has attained its best finish ever in one of the most recognizable measures of athletic department success: the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup.
UK is 25th in the final 2012-13 Directors' Cup standings, the first top-25 finish in school history. The previous record finish of 26th came in 1996-97. UK also tied a school record by placing sixth among Southeastern Conference schools even though the conference featured 14 teams for the first time this season. The SEC led all conferences with three institutions in the top 10 - Florida (second), Texas A&M (fifth) and Georgia (10th).
The finish continues a pattern of consistent improvement in the Directors' Cup during the Mitch Barnhart era. UK has now finished in the top 30 of final Directors' Cup standings in three of the last four years after a 50th-place finish in 2002-03, the first year after Barnhart's arrival. With that steady upward trend, Barnhart's ambitious aim of finishing in the top 15 by 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan introduced in 2008 seems attainable.
The Directors' Cup was founded in 1993-94 as a result of a joint effort by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and USA Today. Points are awarded by sport when teams advance to the postseason in sports sanctioned by the NCAA. Fifteen of UK's 22 programs combined to score UK's 748 points, led by rifle's second-place finish, an Elite Eight appearance by women's basketball and trips to the round of 16 by volleyball, men's tennis and softball. (See left for complete scoring by sport.)
Rifle also brought home a conference championship in 2013, adding another tally toward Barnhart's goal of 15 conference and national titles won before 2015. Now at 11 since 2008, UK needs four more championships in the next two seasons to reach its objective. UK student-athletes also reached Barnhart's goal of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in both the fall and spring semesters for the first time in 2012-13, fulfilling the academic side of the 15 by 15 by 15 vision.
But even with all that success, improvement is on Barnhart's mind.
"When you have 22 programs, you have some highs and some lows, some things that you wanted to do really, really well and some things that you want to do better," Barnhart said in a recent interview with Gary Graves of the Associated Press. "Sometimes, we take it for granted because we've been steady the last few years in consistent growth. But clearly, the sports that gather the most attention, rightly or wrongly, are ones we've got to get better in."
The sports about which Barnhart is talking are, of course, men's basketball and football. Even though neither contributed toward UK's record Directors' Cup finish, there's reason to believe they will both be doing so soon.
"It's been an interesting year in that we've had some things to celebrate, and that's been fun," Barnhart said. "Fans look at three or four sports, first and foremost, and it's interesting that while we might not have had the success that we've wanted or been used to, excitement for those sports is at an all-time high."
Barely a year removed from its eighth national championship, John Calipari's men's basketball program will welcome one of the top recruiting classes in history next season and could be in line for a preseason No. 1 ranking. Mark Stoops, meanwhile, has whipped Kentucky's football fan base into a frenzy during his first seven months on the job. After UK signed an impressive class in February, 50,831 attended the Blue/White Spring game to help set the stage for what could be an even better 2014 class.
Barnhart is now challenging those teams to turn excitement into results during the next season and beyond and asking those that had success in 2012-13 to pursue even more.
This spring, he had t-shirts made and distributed to student-athletes, coaches and staff emblazoned with the phrase "Almost Isn't Good Enough." To put it another way, Barnhart is telling everyone involved in UK Athletics that pursuit of anything less than being the best is unacceptable.
The 2012-13 academic year was a memorable one for UK student-athletes. For the first time ever, Wildcats on scholarship met Mitch Barnhart's goal and achieved a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.0 for both the fall and spring semesters. For their accomplishments, UK student-athletes received deserved praise.
Remaining in the background, however, was another group of hardworking members of the athletic department: Center for Academic and Tutorial Services employees, graduate assistants and tutors. CATS staffers dedicate themselves every day to the academic, personal and social growth of the student-athletes with whom they work and have played an important role in building the culture of UK Athletics beyond the playing field.
Last week, that role was put on more prominent display on a new website: CATSacademics.com.
In conjunction with Assistant Director of Media Relations Pete Camagna and Assistant Director of Multimedia Cailyn Huston, CATS developed its new website to showcase the extensive support network that UK provides for student-athletes. It features profiles of an award-winning staff and a look at the facilities and services offered. In addition, the site will be updated regularly with news about recent accomplishments by Wildcats and relevant information and deadlines for current and prospective student-athletes and their parents.
The book is closed on UK Athletics' 2012-13 season, but a record is still within reach.
On Friday, updated Directors' Cup standings were released and UK came in 25th. UK scored 120 points since the latest standings update on the strength of solid performance by softball (advanced to super regionals) and men's track and field (finished 18th at NCAA Championships).
With no more Wildcat teams competing, UK won't score any more points. However, if UK remains in 25th place, it would set a school record for the highest finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup, making progress toward Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 by the year 2015. The previous record is 26th, set in 1996-97.
UK also ranks sixth among Southeastern Conference schools in the latest standings. That would tie a school record also set in 1996-97.
The NCAA released new Academic Progress Rates on Tuesday and, once again, the University of Kentucky's 22 teams surpassed requirements and avoided any penalties.
This release has more information on the news and the APR - which the NCAA uses to measure academic eligibility and student-athlete retention - but here are some additional notes.
As you can see in the chart below, 14 of UK's 22 teams exceeded the national average APR score for their respective sports, led by men's and women's golf with perfect scores of 1,000. Additionally, 15 UK teams exceeded the average public school APR for their respective sports.
The emphasis on APR scores has increased in recent years and UK has responded. Seventeen teams have improved their scores since 2004-05 and 16 improved or received the same score compared to last year.
APR requirements will become even more stringent next year. To maintain postseason eligibility will require either a 930 four-year APR or a 940 two-year average beginning in 2015. Even though the new threshold is a year away from coming into effect, UK's scores also exceed those tougher requirements.
Below is a chart with UK's four-year APR scores by sport this year, last year and in the first year of the APR, as well as national averages.
Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, UK Athletics operates as one of the only self-sufficient departments in the nation. Each day, we work to prove ourselves worthy of that support.
This year, we are proud of our efforts. We are on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history - we rank 20th after the conclusion of the winter sports season - and our student-athletes have excelled in the classroom and the community as well.
But at the annual CATSPY Awards in April, Mitch Barnhart challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to do more. He challenged student-athletes, coaches and staff to become the nation's best overall athletic department.
It is with that in mind that the K Fund introduces the "Big Blue Initiative."
From May 1 through June 30, the program - which is entirely philanthropic - will offer the opportunity to impact the lives of our student-athletes and Invest In Blue once more. Each dollar will go into our annual fund, which ensures the success of the student-athletes, providing everything from scholarships to athletic equipment to books to meals. We will be sending more information about the Big Blue Initiative to current donors in the coming days and weeks.
To join, donors need only increase their annual giving by 15 percent. If you gave $100 in 2012-13, we are asking that you give an additional $15 before June 30. If you gave $1,000 in 2012-13, that means an additional $150.
Beyond helping UK push toward our athletics director's bold vision, participants will receive the added benefit of a tax deduction and five bonus K Fund points on top of the regular three points per $100 donation.
To become the country's top athletic department, it will take tireless effort and determination on the part of our coaches, but it won't be possible at all without your support. Please consider taking this important step with us.
If you have any questions about the Big Blue Initiative, feel free to contact the K Fund at 859-257-6300 or visit KFundonline.com.
With competition in NCAA-sanctioned winter sports in the books, UK Athletics is on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history. UK ranks 20th in the latest standings, one of the key metrics used by Mitch Barnhart to evaluate the program's progress in competition.
With spring sports still in action on the field, a historic 2012-13 is already secure for UK Athletics in the classroom.
UK's competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a cumulative grade-point average of 3.14 this spring, the highest for a single semester during Barnhart's tenure. The record academic semester comes on the heels of a fall semester during which competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a 3.030 GPA.
"When I established the goal of a 3.0 overall GPA for our department, I knew I was setting the bar high," Barnhart said. "To reach it for an entire athletic year for the first time is an accomplishment our student-athletes should be very proud of. I commend and thank them for their hard work."
***See below for complete grade information for each sport***
Sixteen of UK's 20 teams had GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by women's tennis at 3.69. Four teams joined women's tennis in posting GPAs higher than 3.5: women's soccer (3.62), women's swimming and diving (3.60), women's cross country (3.59) and women's golf (3.53). Leading the way for the Wildcat men's teams was men's basketball at 3.39.
"I am continually impressed by the way our student-athletes, coaches and staff embrace academics as an important part of our mission," Barnhart said. "We are identified first by what we do in competition, but we are out to prove an athletic department can excel in all facets."
The collective achievement this spring has been matched by numerous individual accomplishments as well, as 47 scholarship student-athletes earned a 4.0 this spring semester. In addition, 39 percent of scholarship athletes had GPAs of 3.5 or better and 70 percent were at 3.0 or better. UK also led all Southeastern Conference schools with 57 student-athletes on the league's Winter Sports Academic Honor Roll.
Not included in that group because her sport is not played in the winter is Chelsea Oswald (women's cross country/track), but she was named the SEC's H. Boyd McWhorter Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year in April. Megan Moir (women's golf) also was named the Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year, marking the first time since 1999 UK student-athletes have won both prestigious conference awards.
Note: All GPAs listed above are for competing scholarship student-athletes only. GPAs including non-scholarship athletes are listed in the chart below.