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KNOXVILLE — Thousands of graduates, their families and friends converged on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this week to celebrate spring commencement.

The graduation ceremonies were kicked into full gear Tuesday night with the Kickoff to Commencement celebration, an annual concert event, this year featuring the band Sister Hazel.

More than 3,200 undergraduate students were eligible to participate in this week’s commencement ceremonies, which combines graduates from the spring and summer terms. Students receiving advanced degrees also were recognized this week in a graduate hooding ceremony. There were 706 students earning master’s degrees, 94 earning doctorate degrees and nine earning educational specialist degrees.

During the week’s ceremonies, 10 graduates also received commissions as second lieutenants in the United States armed forces.

Nine ceremonies were held over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and featured many notable speakers — from politicians to a country music icon — who offered graduates sound words of wisdom and advice.

Entertainer and philanthropist Dolly Parton was in attendance Friday at the commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences, both as a guest speaker and as an honoree. Parton received an honorary doctorate of humane and musical letters, and later spoke to graduates. Gov. Phil Bredesen was also on hand and addressed the students.

Another highlight of that ceremony included the reunion of graduate Jennifer Willis and her father, Timothy Willis, a U.S. Army staff sergeant. Jennifer, who last saw her father in November while he was on leave from his deployment to Afghanistan, was surprised by her father during the commencement ceremony as he walked out on stage. The two met in an embrace in front of a full crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“Seeing your child graduate from college is one of those can’t-miss moments and I’m overjoyed that I was able to see Jennifer walk across that stage in person,” Sergeant Willis said. “I’m so thankful for all those involved that helped make today happen.”

A few of the keynote addresses acknowledged the challenging times and unstable economy, something which UT’s Career Services has been trying to prepare graduating students to face.

This year’s graduates face a rockier job market than that of last year’s class. While the entry-level college graduate sector has higher potential for openings than other sectors, the positions are fewer than in years past, which means candidates must be more competitive.

“Companies last year who were looking to hire 10 graduates,” said Russ Coughenour, director of UT’s Career Services, “are now looking to hire six or seven. So there are jobs out there, but the market is tougher. The employers are in the driver’s seat.”

Other notable keynote speakers included:

– Kimberly S. Greene, chief financial officer, chief risk officer and executive vice president of financial services for the Tennessee Valley Authority — the College of Engineering commencement;

– Sam Venable, author and Knoxville News Sentinel humor columnist — the College of Communication and Information commencement;

– Andy Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Gerber/Taylor Capital Advisors — the College of Business Administration commencement;

– Roberta S. Karmel, Centennial Professor of Law and co-director of the Dennis J. Block Center for the Study of International Business Law at Brooklyn Law School — the College of Law commencement;

– Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District from 1997 to 2007 — Chancellor’s Honors Program Graduation.

Pictures, webcasts and information from the various ceremonies can be found at

C O N T A C T :

Kristi Hintz (865-974-3993,
Rebekah Winkler (865-974-8304,