The Swanberg Legacy: love, family and giving

By Julie Wrinn

On both sides, it was love at first sight. Joan Swanberg (B.A. 1981) had grown up in Cleveland but was drawn to the University of Kentucky for its beautiful campus, southern charm, and affordability. During her first two years at UK she thrived in her studies but had brought home to Ohio one too many “bad boyfriends.” At the beginning of her junior year, Joan remembers her mother saying, “Why don’t you go find a nice boy at church?”

Greg Swanberg (B.G.S. 1985) lived at UK’s Newman Center, the campus Catholic ministry, and served as its co-president. Joan went to church, and Greg caught sight of her through a window and told a friend, “I’m going to marry that girl.” When later introduced to Greg, Joan was similarly struck, and they’ve been together ever since.

As the Swanbergs’ Mill House Residency for UK creative writing graduate students prepares to launch this summer, we take a look back at how the Swanbergs’ marriage, careers, and children intersected with the University of Kentucky. It is a story of searching, persisting, and finishing strong, not only for Greg and Joan, but also for their grown sons.

Greg grew up in western Kentucky, the son of a military veteran in a family of eight children. Three older siblings had already enrolled at Western Kentucky University, and Greg thought he might like to try something farther away. During his senior year of high school Greg’s father passed away, creating an enormous burden for their mother, who had four younger children to raise. But it meant that Greg could attend the University of Kentucky tuition-free through the Kentucky Veterans Association. A scholarship from his local community provided living expenses.

During the next three years as an engineering student at UK, Greg returned home often to help his family, and his studies suffered. By the end of his junior year, he was still far from graduating and had reached the end of his ability to pay for college. Greg and Joan decided to marry, leave school and move to Michigan, where Greg got a job. Nine months later their first child, Joe, was born.

When they left UK, Joan had been much closer to graduating herself and needed only six more credit hours, which she was able to complete through independent study and by sitting for final exams at a local university in Michigan. But they knew that in order for Greg to earn his degree, their young family would have to return to Lexington. “We both felt strongly that Greg should definitely return and get his degree,” said Joan, “but we wondered, ‘How long is this going to take, how are we going to swing it?’”

Thanks to UK’s Bachelor of General Studies degree, Greg was able to use all the credit hours he had gained previously. “For the last 18 months of school, I was able to take a combination of engineering, math, and business classes, and it really set me up for my entire career,” said Greg. In Michigan, Greg had found his calling in facilities management, maintaining large government installations and complex military facilities as a civilian contractor. Back at UK, he was even able to name his major: B.G.S., emphasis in facilities management. Greg would go on to earn two more degrees, a master’s in Public Administration from Georgia Southern University, and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School.

Recognizing how essential the B.G.S. flexibility was for many nontraditional students like the Swanbergs, UK has recently reintroduced the degree under a new name—Bachelor of Liberal Studies—and the university is reaching out to former students and encouraging them to finish their degrees through this route. In the Swanbergs’ case, with a young child in tow, “we were definitely nontraditional students,” said Greg. While Joan was working outside the home and Greg was in class, his younger brother, Tom, also a student at UK, would babysit his toddler nephew.

“Those two formed a bond that is still strong to this day,” said Joan. “It’s kind of sweet that he got to know his uncle in a way that he never would have if we hadn’t come back to UK.”

For her part, Joan had initially planned to major in art education, but later switched to English. Once Greg graduated and embarked on a career in government contracting, they moved nearly every two years, including overseas, and in every new locale Joan was able to find work in education.

“I got such a good foundation at UK,” said Joan. “It was a benefit to me as a woman to have a college degree when many others didn’t, and it opened doors every time we moved.” She often taught adult learners, most memorably for the city schools of Anniston, Ala., doing GED prep for employees at a nearby Caterpillar plant.

The Swanbergs’ two younger sons also graduated from UK after taking time away from school just as their parents had. “I really empathize with students who find it difficult to pin down what they want to do,” said Joan. “I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t have a good idea of a career path.”

For James Swanberg (B.S. 2009), their middle son, all it took was one semester of construction work to realize that he needed to return to college. That semester he joined a crew who renovated and expanded the Swanbergs’ mill house in Scottsville, Va., which they recently offered as a summer residency for UK graduate students in creative writing.

That initiative described in the accompanying article was both inspired by, and partly conceived by, their youngest son, Michael.

“Michael loved the English program and poetry and didn’t love anything else,” said Joan. “He had a really tough time trying to figure out what he wanted to do. When he dropped out, we were worried that he would not return to school.” After a two-year hiatus, Michael did return to UK and to the English Department, where he was drawn to the legendary English professors and poets Jane Gentry (Vance) and Nikky Finney. The Swanbergs are deeply appreciative of  Gentry and Finney for their mentorship of Michael.

“They really nurtured him and his talent,” explained Joan. “They encouraged him to just plug on, and not let little things stop him, and see the big picture. We were so grateful for that.” After earning his English degree at UK in 2012, Michael received a full-ride scholarship to study creative writing at the University of Wisconsin and recently completed his MFA there.

Michael Swanberg’s achievement was the tipping point for Greg and Joan: “It really made us feel that it was time to give back ourselves,” explained Joan.

In 2014, the Swanbergs helped establish the Nikky Finney Graduate Fellowship, open to any student enrolled in UK’s Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, with priority given to students from Kentucky who are from underrepresented backgrounds.

“We know firsthand how difficult it can be to pay for school,” explained Greg. “Had we not had help from scholarships and other aid programs, I just cannot imagine where we would be today. I feel obligated to pay that forward. Once we got our children through school, we knew we wanted to help others.”

Thanks to Greg’s success with the 2015 sale of BioStorage Technologies Inc, where he served as CEO, they now have the means to help UK achieve its ambitious goals of nurturing success for all students, especially those who may need a little extra time to finish strong.


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