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For graduates, commencement is a day of mixed emotions: the reluctance of leaving campus life behind and the excitement of embarking on a new beginning.

For Jennifer Willis, a graduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, the day was particularly bittersweet. Though she was surrounded by family and friends, one important person was missing from the audience: her father, Staff Sgt. Timothy Willis.

Sgt. Willis was stationed in Afghanistan, not due for deployment home until a week after graduation. Jennifer found comfort, however, in the fact that he’d be able to watch her walk across stage via webcast.

What Jennifer didn’t know was that her father’s chain of command approved his request to start his leave early so he could see her graduate in person.

As part of a charade kept from Jennifer for weeks, her family contacted the college to plan the surprise: Sgt. Willis would walk out on the stage during the graduation ceremony.

As a segue into the conferral of commission of Arts and Sciences graduates who would be entering the armed forces, Dean Bruce Bursten spoke about the graduates and guests with family members or friends serving in the military.

“We realize that many of you — our graduates and guests — have family members serving on active duty in the military,” Bursten said.

Asking Jennifer to stand, he then spoke of her father’s stationing in Afghanistan.

“Prior to this tour, Sgt. Willis served in Iraq for one year, and Jennifer has not seen him since a brief visit this past November,” Bursten said. “Well, that is, until today….”

At that moment, the crowd gasped as Sgt. Willis appeared on stage in uniform. Soon, everyone was on their feet cheering with eyes on Jennifer as she realized that her father was mere steps away.

Jennifer, overwhelmed with excitement, began jumping up and down and rushed to the stage to reunite with her dad, where he presented her with a stuffed teddy bear in military uniform. Their reunion brought tears of joy to many in the near-capacity Thompson-Boling Arena.

Both Sgt. Willis and Jennifer were awed with the warm welcoming of their reunion and the planning behind the surprise.

“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,” Sgt. Willis said. “I’m so thankful for all those involved that helped make today happen.”

Jennifer, who majored in interdisciplinary studies, was equally grateful for the response from the audience and elated to see her father.

“Thank you so much to everyone who has given us such a warm reaction,” Jennifer said. “This was the best graduation surprise I could have ever hoped for and I feel so fortunate.”

Thinking of the not so fortunate, Jennifer asked people to keep in mind those with family members currently on active duty.

“Let us not forget those who still have family members overseas or are serving our nation,” she said. “We should be proud of them and support them every day. I know I am extremely proud of my father and he is of me as well.”


For more images and videos of Commencement, visit http://www.utk.edu/commencement/spring09/index.shtml.