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For Robin Klehr Avia—now regional managing principal of one of the world’s leading architectural firms—being on stage at the Architecture and Design commencement ceremony filled a gap missing from her life for forty years.

At the time of her graduation from the interior design program, the New Jersey native was home with her mother, grieving the loss of her father. Her mother wasn’t up for making the trip to Knoxville for the ceremony, so Avia passed on making the ceremonial walk across the stage.

Dean of the College of Architecture and Design Scott Poole, Robin Klehr Avia, regional managing principal for Gensler, and Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek pose for a photograph during spring commencement. Avia, a UT alumna, received UT’s thirteenth honorary degree.

She received another chance on Friday, May 13, as she shook hands with Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek and was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

“It’s the graduation I never had,” Avia said.

More than 4,800 students graduated from the university’s eleven colleges and the Graduate School last week during four days of ceremonies and special events.

Avia urged architecture and design graduates to aspire for more than success; she challenged them to live a life of significance.

“Significance is not about what you did yesterday or last week; it’s about your life’s work and your reputation over the course of your entire career,” said Avia, the regional managing principal and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors for Gensler.

Robin Klehr Avia, regional managing principal for Gensler and a UT alumna, speaks before graduating students from the College of Architecture and Design during spring commencement.

Gensler is one of the world’s leading architecture and design firms with 5,000 practitioners in forty-six locations. More than 1,000 people are employed in the areas under Avia’s supervision in offices in New York City, Boston, Morristown, Toronto, Sao Paulo, Costa Rica, and Mexico City. She has directed award-winning projects that include The New York Times headquarters and Condé Nast’s headquarters at One World Trade Center.

“More than 200 million people experience a Gensler design every day,” she said. “Design provides us every day with the opportunity to change lives and make a difference.”

While working on her speech, Avia said she consulted two employees who are recent UT grads on what they wanted to hear from their commencement speaker. They told her they wanted to know how to be successful and how to make a difference in the world.

“That’s really two sides to the same coin. They are connected and that connection has a bearing on how to think about success itself,” she said.

For one thing, she said, “success isn’t a one-off.” It comes from doing the right thing, not the convenient thing. A meaningful life is not about personal gain.

She also said that achieving significance requires a team, and that staying balanced means your work life and your personal life need to be synergistic. She told them she once skipped a Gensler board meeting in Shanghai, China, because she thought it was more important to be at her daughter’s pre-prom party.

Wishing the graduates well, she said, “think of this moment as the end of the beginning.”

Avia received UT’s thirteenth honorary degree. In ceremonies on Wednesday and Thursday, Thom Mason, Oak Ridge National Laboratory director, and Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, also received honorary degrees.

A few of UT’s graduates drew media coverage including Makayla Claussen, who met the stem cell donor who saved her life shortly before her graduation on Saturday, and Jacqueline Gaddis, a graduate from the College of Nursing who is the college’s youngest graduate ever at age 18. She shared the moment with her sister, Madeleine, who also graduated from the College of Nursing.

WATE: Sisters graduate from UT’s College of Nursing at ages 18 and 20

WVLT: Youngest ever UT nursing grad walks with sister at comencement

Related: View a Storify roundup that includes social media posts, photos and videos from the College of Law’s commencement ceremony.


Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674,