By Leslie Bueno
Ruth Coleman made history at the University of Kentucky when she became the first African American woman to graduate from the College of Engineering in 1977. Her achievement occurred not long after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
Coleman was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. She and her family lived on a farm that belonged to her ancestors from the time slavery was abolished.
After graduating from Bryan Station High School in 1968, Coleman began her college career by attending Transylvania University. She completed two years as a math major but was convinced by co-workers to change to engineering.
“Even with a Ph.D. in math, one can’t earn as much as an engineer,” Coleman said in an interview with Lexington Herald in 1977.
She then transferred to Lexington Technical Institute, now known as Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where she obtained her associate degree in engineering technology. Shortly after, Coleman started working for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which at that time was better known as the Kentucky Department of Transportation's Division of Bridges.
Upon enrolling in civil engineering classes at the University of Kentucky, Coleman often found herself to be the only black student in her classes, as well as one of the only females. She recalls her time in college being “difficult” and “challenging,” yet “interesting.”
“It can be difficult for a woman and a black to relate to all the white male students in the department,” Coleman said.
In 1977, Coleman became the first African-American woman to graduate from UK College of Engineering when she earned her degree in civil engineering. She received her diploma 26 years after electrical engineering graduate Holloway Fields Jr., who became the first African American student to graduate from the University of Kentucky.
After graduating from UK, Coleman moved to Alaska where she became a senior structural engineer.
Thanks to pioneers like Ruth Coleman, the number of African American women embracing engineering careers has greatly increased. As a result, so has the quality and diversity of the entire field.