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LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) – The need for social workers continues to grow across Kentucky. On Saturday, 72 new doctors joined the field upon graduation from the University of Kentucky, but for 23 of them the occasion is a little more special and makes an historic impact.

“To have this volume of African American students to graduate from one discipline at the University of Kentucky is huge,” Dr. Marilyn Sails told FOX 56.

Sails counts herself among the inaugural class of the new Doctoral of Social Work program, which graduated the most Black doctors in a single discipline in the University of Kentucky’s history. The students are also among the largest number of minority students to graduate from a predominantly white institution’s doctoral program at once. It’s an achievement that breaks barriers.

“Cards are always stacked against us and so just to know that you can push through any obstacle, any barrier, they saw me sweating crying, frantic and still push through,” Dr. Cynae Adams said.

As opposed to a PhD, which focuses more on research, this is a practice degree. These graduates are keeping their skills in the workforce, at a time they say it’s at the highest demand.

“There’s more of our community wanting to come out and seek mental health services than I’ve seen in the 8 years that I’ve been a therapist and what they’re having the need for is they want a therapist that looks like them and there’s not that many of us in the City of Lexington,” Dr. Brittany Gentry said.

Kentucky’s social service workforce is stretched thin. bipartisan efforts were made in Frankfort this year to raise their pay and speed up hiring. Dr. Sharrion Brown says she was only paid 30,000 a year for child services investigations but remained committed because she saw a need.

“It was around the time George Floyd had been killed, Breonna Taylor had been killed and I was noticing that no one was really thinking about all the trauma that black people were experiencing watching these experiences second hand,” she said.

Some graduates were also the first in their family to earn the achievement. They hope it serves as an inspiration to others, now that the real work can begin.  

“We have 23 people who are now experts or becoming experts in our respective areas and we’re doctor – you know we have that “Dr.” in front of your name or the DSW, I just feel blessed,” Dr. Tay Robinson said.