More than 5,250 graduates will cross the stage this weekend and join the ranks of alumni at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
It would be impossible to summarize the college experience blighted by the pandemic for the Class of 2022 or their future plans.
We spoke to four UT grad students to get a sense of what they loved and what they’re ready to leave behind about their college experience and the city of Knoxville.
We also asked them what’s next and why they’re staying – or not staying – in the Scruffy City that is desperate to expand its pool of college-educated workers.
The lack of graduate workers in Knoxville is drying up the labor pool and making it difficult for Knoxville businesses to grow, the data shows.
Choosing the University of Tennessee
For Simon Jolly and Aruha Khan, UT has been in their backyard all their lives.
“I was born on Cumberland Avenue, went to elementary school on Lake Avenue, and now I’m at UT,” Jolly said. “This quarter mile is quite familiar to me.”
Growing up so close to college presented new challenges for the two Knoxville natives: They both felt like they knew what UT was all about before they got there. Khan went to L&N STEM Academy for high school and was on campus all the time to use the library.
“I was never really sure if I wanted to go to UT just because of the amount of exposure I had there,” Khan said.
But as Khan and Jolly became more involved on campus, UT began to feel less like the big college in their backyard and more like a place they could make their own.
For Jolly, her VOLbreak through the Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service changed everything. The Community Service Trip Program integrates students into communities and short-term service projects during fall, winter, or spring vacation.
“I really think this trip kind of showed me what discovering your community at UT can be like and showed me what the student involvement side of my campus experience could become” , Jolly said.
For Savannah Hall, coming to UT was little more than a travel commitment. The Memphis business administration major decided to branch out from its small high school and take advantage of UT’s size.
“UT had a lot to offer that I never saw due to being a big school,” Hall said.
It was a risk, but Hall felt ready.
But no one could prepare the four students for a global pandemic to upend their college experience.
Navigating the COVID Pandemic
When Hall’s mother warned her in February that she might have to come home soon because of COVID-19, she didn’t believe her.
“I was like, ‘You’re lying. It’s not going to happen.’ Hall said, saying she almost wished she could go home because she was so stressed out at school. “Fast forward two or three weeks later, and I was home.”
She went from spending most of her time on campus bouncing between organization meetings to hundreds of Zoom meetings and campaigning for student government elections via text.
“The SGA campaign online is super weird. I was pretty much texting and (direct messaging) all these people and couldn’t get to talking to them about politics,” Hall said.
And Jolly, who served as the SGA’s executive treasurer this year, said the pandemic had hurt engagement even though students were allowed to return to campus and meet in person.
“We’re not at all pre-COVID engagement on campus,” Jolly said.
Meanwhile, Blankenship was not just looking to stay safe during a pandemic, but also to do her new job. He took a co-op job with Fresenius Medical Care, a manufacturer of dialysis products in Knoxville, where he often worked solo in the research and development department.
“I remember at first it was a bit daunting. … But I feel like it really helped me to get those independent skills that I learned in future internships. It really was precious,” Blankenship said.
Khan was trying to figure out the best way to recruit people for his student organization, Student Advocates for Medicine in Politics, which hopes to accelerate medical equality by mobilizing local communities through education and awareness.
“It was really difficult to start the organization because of the marketing aspect and recruiting students,” Khan said. “At UT, there are so many different health organizations, so it was hard to get students to (see) what’s different about this one. … I think after students saw the kind of changes that we hope to motivate in pre-health professionals, they were kind of like gravitating more and more towards the organization.”
The organization, now a registered non-profit, helps keep Khan connected to the town she grew up in, even as she plans to move.
Love or leave Knoxville
Khan remains in Knoxville – for now.
The Biological Sciences and Finance major will be the Senior Physician Assistant and Clinical Investigator at Genesis, a neuroscience clinic that cares for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and other cognitive issues.
It’s a perfect — but temporary — position for Khan, who hopes to continue his medical school/MBA at Emory University in Atlanta. She is currently in the process of applying.
“I decided to stay here and be with my family for one more year,” Khan said. “Since there’s no MD/MBA program here in Knoxville, I know I’m going to have to leave.”
But Blankenship is ready to start a new adventure. He will work at Smith & Nephew, a medical device manufacturing company, at its Memphis plant.
“I really want to work in some sort of medical device field, just because I always wanted to use my degree for something that I thought impacted other people,” Blankenship said.
Hall, however, continues on his way to Knoxville. She is staying at UT for law school in the fall.
“Ultimately it came down to where I wanted to live next: Tennessee. I have no intention of moving anywhere else, at least not in the long term,” Hall said.
Jolly, who is in Knoxville over the summer on a virtual internship for geographic information system software provider Esri, says he plans to leave Knoxville after the summer.
“I think what keeps people from staying (in Knoxville) is that there aren’t flagship and leading companies for many different industries. We have Discovery, Tombras and a few other companies , but they don’t have the same appeal or appeal as some big brands.”
But he’s not ruling out returning to Scruffy City altogether.
“I really like to see living in Knoxville as part of my future in some way. I don’t know exactly what that will be like,” Jolly said. “But I think what would bring me back to Knoxville in 10 years is that it’s going to be completely different than it is today if there’s more business and stuff going on here. “