It was the day after her oldest sister’s wedding. Julia Niemann Barney was packing her Ford Focus, leaving barely enough room for herself, about to embark on a two-hour drive from Oldham County to Eastern Kentucky University and her freshman year.
“Sitting there,” Barney recalled, “I thought to myself, that is my family inside that house, people that love me and care for me, people that I was about to move away from for the next several years. I was excited, nervous and sad, all at once.”
Fast forward to the final day of that first year, when the scene was repeated, only with a twist. There Barney sat on the front porch of Sullivan Hall with her college roommate. “We hugged and cried and promised to visit each other over the summer. I then got back into my tiny Focus, packed so tight that barely had enough room to squeeze myself in, and realized: EKU is my second home. It is filled with people who love me and care for me, people who support me and, most importantly, people who have become my family.”
But it’s when she left home, the Richmond campus and her car behind that Barney truly changed. As a member of the University’s Honors program, she signed up for SidewalkU, a credit course for which students travel to a different part of the country to study issues related to diversity. That winter, she and her classmates traveled to the low country of South Carolina, where they visited with migrant families, African-American descendants of the Gullah-Geechee culture, and Hilton Head residents.
The encounters sparked discussions about how all the cultures related, “and how we could apply our experiences back to our home in eastern Kentucky. I remember looking around the room one of those nights. We were huddled in the living room in the house that Martin Luther King Jr. had meetings in several years before, changing the course of history through the civil rights movement. Now here we were: a group of EKU students sitting in the same spot, changing the course of history. It was moments like these that make be proud to be a Colonel.”
She graduated summa cum laude as an Honors Scholar with a bachelor’s degree in pre-veterinary medicine from EKU in December 2016, but not before the once-shy Barney who dreaded public speaking had completed several research projects and presented at national Honors conferences and elsewhere; not before she overcame her non-farm background to work comfortably with all manner of livestock at the University’s farm; and not before she traveled to South Africa for a two-week wildlife internship, during which she fed endangered rhinos, rode through game reserves to capture antelope, witnessed giraffes and zebras running free, and enjoyed a “rare opportunity” to assess a two-day-old lion cub. She was also the co-founder and president of the EKU Pre-Veterinary Club.
Barney, who enters the North Carolina State University veterinary school this fall, recently returned to campus to receive the EKU College of Business and Technology’s 2017 Distinguished Senior Award. Recipients are chosen based on academic achievement, leadership, citizenship, character and service.
“Mrs. Barney is one of those rare students who can seemingly do it all, and do it well,” said Dr. John Settimi, chair of the Department of Agriculture.
After graduating from South Oldham High School, Barney applied to “a handful” of universities, and Eastern “was the only school that I felt truly wanted to get to know me personally. I specifically chose to be part of the agriculture department because of how hands-on the program is. I learned how to castrate cattle, administer vaccines, process newborn piglets to ensure their health, milk cows, and develop nutritionally sound livestock diets. I believe this knowledge of handling livestock truly made me stand out among other veterinary applicants.”
She believes all her undergraduate research experiences will also serve her well. For her senior Honors thesis, Barney worked with faculty mentor Dr. Bruce Pratt and the University’s farm manager to conduct a research project that analyzed factors that influence grazing patterns in dairy cattle, presenting her final thesis to her peers, Honors director and the Brown Swiss Association. “The experience proves that I am capable of conducting an original research project by using modern technological equipment (wireless sensors), collaborating with professionals in my field, and communicating my findings to an audience of people both familiar and unfamiliar with agricultural sciences.”
She also won the top honors and a monetary award in her college’s capstone presentation competition, proving once more her newfound comfort with public speaking.
“I firmly believe that if I had attended a different university, either they would not have enough resources to support undergraduate research, or they would be too large for me to do an individual project,” Barney said. “Instead, I probably would have been a small part of a professor’s research team.”
Now, with a promising veterinary career in sight and with husband John alongside her, Barney is ready to pack that car one more time and leave her natural and Colonel families behind, this time supremely confident of her abilities and her future.