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Deans and administrators from each college suggested one of their faculty members who deserve special “kudos” during Faculty Appreciation Week.

Denise Bates

Denise BatesIt’s been more than 15 years since Denise Bates “caught the international refugee bug,” and now she’s busy sharing it with others.

As an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health, Bates has started a project called “Healing Transitions: Program Interventions for Refugee Youth and Families.” It has helped about 300 refugees from Burundi, Africa, and has given 20 to 30 UT student volunteers a chance to learn about another culture and give back to the community.

“Dr. Bates has recruited both students and faculty alike in providing important services to a community of Burundian people,” said Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. “She is directing efforts that will assist these people in the areas of education, health, job placement and community service opportunities pertinent to their successful resettlement here in East Tennessee.”

Bates’ love for her work stems, in part, from the fact that she grew up in a military family and saw how people were affected by conflict.

While working on her master’s degree in global health in Texas, she worked with Sudanese refugees. One day she was asked to find a Sudanese translator but quickly learned there was not just one Sudanese language, but 200.

“I was intrigued that we knew so little about our refugees,” she said.

When Bates came to UT three years ago, she did some research and found that Knoxville’s Burundi refugees were most in need. Many had lived their entire lives in resettlement camps in Tanzania. They had never been to school and had never learned work skills. They spoke no English and were illiterate even in their native language, Kirundi.

Healing Transitions holds monthly events for the Burundians on topics like health and nutrition. A Ready for the World grant has helped the group secure educational resources in Kirundi.

Healing Transitions has helped some of the refugees find work, some at UT. The group also provides a social outlet for the refugee families and has empowered them to create their own nonprofit organization called SODELA.

Bates is pleased that Healing Transitions has given students insight into the country’s refugee system.

“To see lights go on in students’ eyes, that is worth every bit of classroom time I can give them,” she said.

Like the students involved, Bates’ work with Healing Transitions is voluntary, above and beyond her teaching load.

“People ask me all of the time why I do it,” she said. “I say, ‘Because I can.’

“We are all so blessed and privileged to be born in the U.S., a country that has been – so far — without the conflict and the strife that is experienced by other developing countries.”

Steven Waller

Steven WallerSteven Waller, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies and co-director of the Project GRAD Summer Institute, remembers how a teacher helped set him straight when he was just 15 and toying with trouble.

After an incident, the school director “grabbed me by the back of my collar” and told me that he knew my family, knew my potential and “expected more of me.”

“For me, that was a turning point,” Waller said. That incident, he said, taught him what it meant to be concerned for others, to point them in the right direction and to stress to them the importance of a college education.

That’s what Waller and fellow co-director Fritz Polite, clinical professor of sport management, do every year when they welcome as many as 150 sophomores and juniors from Knoxville’s Austin East and Fulton high schools to the UT campus for the Project GRAD Summer Institute.

Project GRAD participants live on the UT campus for two weeks, taking college classes, using the library and doing homework. This year, Project GRAD will run two intensive one-week sessions.

Waller, who came to UT five years ago, said he was drafted by Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences, to work with Project GRAD, a federal program that forges partnerships between public schools and the private sector.

“The purpose of Project GRAD is to aid in the students’ persistence to higher education, leading to more underrepresented students attending and hopefully graduating from college,” Rider said. “Steven’s work in this effort has been nothing short of heroic and has already paid significant dividends in the lives of these students.”

Planning the summer institute is a year-round project. During the two-week Summer Institute, Waller and other camp administrators work nearly around-the-clock to keep things running smoothly.

“It’s a lot of work, but I think the benefits far outweigh the labor that goes into it,” Waller said.

Some students leave the program knowing they’re ready for college with hopes of coming to UT. Others realize they’ve got to work harder if they want to succeed at college. A few figure out that college isn’t for them.

“We give them the tools they need to begin thinking about the rest of their lives,” Waller said.