Princeton was never a name that crossed the mind of a young Kevin R. Smith *12 when he was applying to colleges. The son of a former coal miner who never attended college, Smith just wanted to be close to home in eastern Kentucky. He chose Union College, near his birthplace in Clay County, Ky., in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” says Smith of Union, where he played on the baseball team and led the school’s College Republicans. “But I think so many people think about the collegiate experience more like I did. Most folks don’t the get opportunity to travel and see an institution like Princeton.”
Indeed, in 2014 the New York Times Upshot blog named Clay County the “hardest” place in America to live, judging by its median household income of $22,296, its college education rate of 7.4 percent, its unemployment rate of 12.7 percent, its disability rate of 11.7 percent, its obesity rate of 45 percent, and its life expectancy of 71.4 years (six years less than the national average).
An introduction to a fellow eastern Kentuckian changed the trajectory of Smith’s life. Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan needed a special assistant, sometimes referred to as a “body man.” He tapped Smith, who was still trying to break in on Capitol Hill — first as an intern for Rep. Hal Rogers and later as an aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell.
“He took a young man from eastern Kentucky with a passion for public service and allowed him to see a world of opportunity bigger than he could have ever imagined,” says Smith, who traveled with Duncan across the country in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election.
“I had a front-row view to learn about leadership,” says Smith. “I watched as he would meticulously prepare for meetings, always being the most prepared person in the room. I witnessed how he was effective in meetings by being a good listener able to build consensus.”
After the campaign, Duncan encouraged Smith to apply to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. The master’s in public affairs program would allow Smith to put in perspective what he had witnessed as Duncan’s body man and help him build up his policy toolkit. Smith went with the intention of using what he learned to improve his native Clay County.
“I think my colleagues and classmates grew from seeing someone from a different background, coming from Appalachia and Kentucky and a conservative viewpoint,” says Smith, who was in the minority on Princeton’s campus. “If we were talking about rural policy, I could talk about how that impacts people I know — my family.”
Classes with Josh Bolten ’76, Brian Trelstad and Ed Zschau ’61 inspired Smith to organize a young professionals organization and a nonprofit coding academy called Rural Up in eastern Kentucky, where Smith returned to start a law practice.
“You always see bootcamps and weekend hackathons on Princeton campus,” says Smith. “You get back to Kentucky and it’s like a foreign land. Those things weren’t in existence yet.”
With Rural Up, Smith hopes to connect eastern Kentucky with the modern economy and also put a face on Princeton.
“I’m excited when these students apply,” says Smith. “Even if they don’t get accepted, they have brothers and sisters and others in their schools who hear it’s a great place.”