Ashlee-Nicole Crump Hamilton is part of a family legacy that has endured for nearly 100 years at the University of Kentucky.

Hamilton, a scholar in the UK College of Education and director of student services in the UK College of Medicine, will become “Dr. Ashlee-Nicole Crump Hamilton,” accepting her doctoral degree in higher education at the university’s May 2023 Commencement. The occasion will mark the latest educational achievement among her family. Their history at UK began even prior to the landmark court case that opened the university to Black students in 1949.

It was Grace Hinnant, Hamilton’s great grandmother, who initiated the family’s legacy at UK when she attended UK Cooperative Extension Service classes in the 1930s. Prior to that, she had briefly moved to Ohio to earn a teaching degree after graduating from the old Paul Laurence Dunbar High School — an all-Black high school that operated in Lexington from 1923 to 1967. 

With Grace Hinnant representing the first generation to take classes through UK, even before its integration, Hamilton will be among the fourth generation of UK students in her family when she crosses the commencement stage.

The second generation to attend UK, siblings Annbruce Hinnant King and Ollen Hinnant, were known to Hamilton as “Mommy Annbruce” and “Uncle Ollen.”

Hamilton’s grandmother Annbruce earned her bachelor’s degree from the UK College of Education and began her teaching career at an historically challenging time, with many schools still evading integration.

When her great uncle earned his law degree from UK in 1955, he became the J. Rosenberg College of Law’s first Black graduate. He was the first Black inductee into the law school’s Hall of Fame in 1997 and was also inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of his graduation, an alumni group established a scholarship in his name.

Hamilton saw the opportunities education opened for her family, despite the various forms of oppression and racism they faced. When her doctoral work could have been interrupted by life — responsibilities that come with marriage, pregnancies and a pandemic — she kept going because of those who never had the chance. 

“To give up or stop because something got hard, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t feel like it was right,” she said.

As the UK College of Education — founded in 1923 — prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary during the upcoming academic year, Hamilton reflected on her family’s role in that history.

“I feel a sense of pride and honor, but also definitely humbleness. I keep thinking of the word persistence. For over 100 years, the college has persisted. Students have persisted. It’s a joyous occasion to be part of that legacy,” she said.

Her upcoming graduation helped Hamilton’s mother Vicki Crump recall an article written about those in their family who had made history at UK.

“Mom sent me the article as not just a reminder of history, but also to say how proud she was I’m continuing that legacy. I have a daughter and I want to pass our family’s stories down to her and not keep them silent,” Hamilton said. “I’m grateful for my mom passing stories down to me and for being my greatest source of inspiration and I hope I can do the same for my daughter.”

The third generation among Hamilton’s family to go to UK was Karen Napier, who was legally blind. She earned a master’s degree in early childhood education in 2000 and taught kindergarten in Fayette County Public Schools for over 18 years. Napier was not the only educator among Annbruce’s six children. Altogether, two were elementary teachers, one taught middle school and one taught adult education — surrounding Hamilton with opportunities to learn, even when school was not in session.

“In the summers with my mom, aunties and my grandmother, we were still doing educational activities before we played outside. It just instilled in us the importance of an education,” Hamilton said.

The fourth generation to earn degrees from UK include Hamilton’s sister, Barri Crump Woodfork, who earned her master’s degree in 2000 and her education specialist (Ed.S.) degree two years later in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology. Hamilton’s cousin Matthew Davis earned a UK degree in psychology in 2009, carrying the Hinnant legacy forward.

It was often Woodfork who gave Hamilton real-time advice when obstacles emerged.

“My sister pushed me to finish. She reminded me that even if I don’t need the doctorate right now, there may be a time when I need it down the road. You never know what doors it may open,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s father, Barry Crump, helped develop an “I can” mentality in her. At first, she used it in sports — Hamilton was co-captain on the first Berea College basketball team to bring home a conference tournament championship in 2006. It later was about having a positive mentality in life, which helped carry her through the doctoral program.

Also influential in Hamilton’s perseverance was Kelly Bradley, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation. Hamilton met Bradley years prior while working on her master’s degree. Crump contacted Bradley first thing after deciding to start the doctoral program, hoping Bradley would be her advisor and help build her committee.

“I am so incredibly proud of Ashlee and honored to be part of her journey. Her path was defined by determination as she navigated academia, motherhood, a pandemic and her staff role at UK. She is an excellent role model for others pursuing advanced degrees,” Bradley said.

With the influence of mentorship playing a central role in her life, Hamilton is now able to create opportunities for others. At the UK College of Medicine, part of her role involves creating a community of belonging for everyone. Her doctoral dissertation relates directly to her staff role, focusing on African American students’ experience with faculty mentoring.

“Mentorship is important for all students, but especially for first-generation students who have no family members who have gone to medical school,” Hamilton said. “For my dissertation, I explored our students’ experience with mentorship, both on the UK College of Medicine Lexington campus and on our regional medical campuses, and examined how mentors help them succeed in medical school and beyond in ways such as networking, career advice, personal advice, being a role model, boosting confidence, learning skills and having a work-life balance.”

With her dissertation complete, Hamilton is ready to walk across the commencement stage with her family, including husband Jonathan Hamilton, watching from the audience. Jonathan has also been influential in Hamilton's perseverance and a wonderful source of support and encouragement, Hamilton said. She will be 34 weeks pregnant on graduation day, carrying a son who, along with her two-year-old daughter, will perhaps be members of the fifth generation to attend UK.

Her children, as well as countless students Hamilton will encounter in her higher education career, stand to gain insight from Hamilton’s experiences and legacy.

“Believe in yourself, follow your dreams and have faith you can do it,” Hamilton said. “Pull strength from opportunities folks from the past would not have had. If they could have done it, likely they would have. Stand on their shoulders and finish off what they would have started. If you can reach your educational goals, really the opportunities are limitless.”