Class of 2021: Naval veteran’s compassion and service lead to future in health care management

Before starting his MBA at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, Ken Barnes undertook an ambitious adventure, riding his bicycle 5,000 miles across 20 states.

After his time in the U.S. Navy and before starting at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Ken Barnes and a friend rode 5,000 miles across the country. (submitted photo)

“One of my biggest takeaways was that the South does not have a monopoly on hospitality,” the Petersburg, Tennessee, native said of the trip. “It was refreshing to meet so many folks and see how genuinely kind people were.” 

The trip, though, says as much about Barnes as it does about the people he met along the way. Not only is he drawn to accomplishing impressive goals, he also has a natural ability to connect with others. Those traits have served him well throughout his life, whether working in close quarters with fellow service members as a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer, partnering with members of the Nashville community to create a bicycle food ministry, or collaborating with Owen classmates to find creative business solutions for ever-changing medical environments. 

These experiences also have provided a solid foundation for Barnes to build upon as he embarks on a career in health care after graduation.

Barnes participating in “diver duty” in Alaska while working on a nuclear submarine in the Navy. (submitted photo)

I built a strong operational and technical background from my time at the Naval Academy and in the submarine community,” Barnes said. “The concentration in health care here at Owen was the bridge I needed for my next chapter. The professors are incredible, and we’ve had a lot of interactions with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It’s exactly what I hoped out of my MBA experience.” 

While respecting COVID-19 safety protocols, Barnes was able to hear from emergency room nurses and doctors and other area experts about management needs. He also spent several months interning on the administrative side of a psychiatric hospital. After graduation he will join a prestigious health care business fellowship program with Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. 

Bass Military Scholars

Barnes with some of his fellow Bass Military Scholars before a Commodores football game. (pre-COVID, submitted photo)

Barnes came to Vanderbilt as a member of the first cohort of Bass Military Scholars, a program that provides financial aid and programming support for military veterans pursuing professional degrees across the university. He found a sense of community among the fellow veterans in the program and looks forward to mentoring future Bass Scholars. 

“The scholars in the Bass program are just incredible human beings, and it’s been great having that network as well as plugging into other parts of the Vanderbilt grad school community. I feel honored to even be included in that group,” he said. 

Serving on two wheels

When Barnes moved to Nashville, he launched the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, a nonprofit that serves people affected by homelessness and poverty. Volunteers prepare meals and ride around downtown Nashville offering food, donated supplies and, most important to Barnes, a listening ear to individuals living on the city’s streets. 

“I could talk about UBFM for days because I truly love it, but I think one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had is how we’re able to break down stereotypes that exist around homelessness,” he said. “I think that there are a lot of common yet unfair stereotypes that exist. But after people volunteer one night, they quickly see that it’s not what they thought it was going to be.” 

Barnes said the group serves many individuals who have jobs but can’t afford housing, transportation or health care. He said many on the streets live a “complicated reality,” and he’s thankful to spend time listening to their stories. 

“It’s a food ministry,” he said, “but I think it’s more about connecting with people.” 

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.