Deidria Tankersley grew up dreaming about being a member of UT’s Pride of the Southland Band.
It took her longer than expected, and breast cancer threatened to derail her journey, but Tankersley marched on. Now, after three seasons with the Pride of the Southland—including being a member of the drum line and serving as a high-level student leader—she is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music.
The university will award 3,113 undergraduate degrees, 923 graduate degrees, 109 law degrees, and 82 veterinary medicine degrees during this week’s commencement ceremonies. Undergraduate commencement ceremonies will take place Thursday through Saturday, May 10–12, and graduate hooding will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 10. All events will be held in Thompson-Boling Arena. See the commencement website for a schedule of ceremonies, speakers, security information, and more.
“The many twists and turns of this journey we call life have made me realize that life is too short to waste time on things that do not make me joyful and ecstatic,” Tankersley said. “Throughout my life, my passion for music and desire to share it with young people has always been an inspiration to keep going no matter what life throws at me.”
A Georgia native, Tankersley had been a Volunteer fan since childhood and it was always her dream to be a member of the Pride of the Southland Band. She moved to Knoxville in 2000 and landed a full-time job as a bookkeeper, with plans to save money so she could one day enroll at UT. Before she knew it, 13 years had gone by.
But Tankersley hadn’t forgotten her dream, and in 2013 she picked up her clarinet for the first time in the 18 years since she’d graduated from high school. She began taking lessons and won a spot with UT’s Concert Band.
Then in March 2014, Tankersley was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She didn’t let it stop her, though. Just days after her first chemotherapy session, she excelled in her audition for the School of Music.
Leading up to the start of classes in the fall of 2014, Tankersley went through five more rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. She had surgery just one week before the beginning of the semester.
She spent the next few months adjusting to life as a 34-year-old UT freshman while recovering from both surgery and treatments. Through it all, she was driven by her next goal: to wear the iconic Pride of the Southland uniform.
In 2015, as a sophomore, Tankersley—who had been pronounced cancer-free—earned a spot with the Pride. During her time in the band, she marched clarinet and cymbals. She was honored with a place in the drum line and was even named to the prestigious Black Suits in 2017. As a Black Suit, one of the highest leadership positions in the band, Tankersley assisted in teaching drills and music during rehearsals and served as a liaison between the band directors and members.
Tankersley said being a Black Suit helped her grow her leadership abilities and become more efficient. The experience also improved her communication skills.
“My favorite memory is the first time I stepped onto the field as a member of the drum line to perform pregame and circle drill,” she said. “In those very moments, my dream of marching in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band had finally come true and I felt as though my hard work had finally paid off.”
Victor Chavez, associate professor of clarinet, said he and Tankersley have worked closely together over the past few years. He said he admires how hard she worked to achieve her dreams.
“I see her more as a colleague than as one of my students,” he said. “I genuinely admire Deidria and am so proud of the way she rose to all of the challenges thrown her way.”
Tankersley’s future goal is to teach music and be a band director at the middle or high school level in the Knox County area.
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)