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For one UT graduate student and one Volunteer Bridge student, being part of the Volunteer family has double meaning. They are a mother and son who have traveled a tough road together to find a home on Rocky Top.

image of Skikila Smith
Skikila Smith, a graduate student in education

Skikila Smith, 40, graduated from UT in May with a bachelor’s degree in English. She is now working on her master’s degree in secondary education.

Her son, Rudy Pirtle, 18, graduated from Knoxville’s South Doyle High School in May. He is one of 223 students in the new class of Volunteer Bridge, a dual enrollment program in which students spend their first year living on UT’s campus while studying at Pellissippi State Community College. After successfully completing their first year, Volunteer Bridge students transfer to UT as sophomores.

Being at UT with her youngest child is a dream come true for Smith, who often feared their futures wouldn’t look so bright.

Smith grew up in the Lonsdale neighborhood of Knoxville. She had her first daughter in 1992 and her second daughter in 1993. She was emancipated from her family in 1994. She found support from a teen parenting program at school and made ends meet with the money she got from her father’s Social Security death benefits.

Always a bookworm, Smith still managed to graduate on time from Austin East High School in 1995. She enrolled in Pellissippi with dreams of becoming an attorney.

But some bumps in the road, including the murder of her daughters’ father in 1997, proved overwhelming.

She dropped out of school, got a full-time job, and put herself through manicurist school. Over the next few years she worked at a variety of jobs, sometimes two at a time—doing nails, bartending, working in an attorney’s office.

image of Skikila Smith and Rudy Pirtle
Skikila Smith with her son, Rudy Pirtle, who is part of the Volunteer Bridge program.

Rudy was born in 1999. His father was already in prison.

Smith wanted to show her children they could avoid some of the problems she’d experienced.

“As a parent, education was walking it like you talk it,” Smith said. “Education, for me, was a second life, a second chance to live.”

Both of Smith’s daughters sought postsecondary schooling. Pirtle set his sights on college.

In 2013, Smith quit her full-time job at Fulton Bellows and returned to Pellissippi. After completing her associate’s degree, she came to UT to finish her bachelor’s degree.

“We have checkpoints in life,” she said. “I did not want to be 40 years old and still clocking in at a job that was working my body down. I needed a career over a job, a calling over a career.”

Remembering how she’d taught them to spell through rapping and rhyming, her kids urged her to pursue teaching. Language arts had always been her strong suit.

“English isn’t nurtured as a tool of survival, but I learned a lot through literature,” she said. “Not a lot of African American kids know what vital information is in a book.”

At UT, Smith found a mentor in Susan Benner, who retired in January as associate dean and director of the Graduate School of Education.

image of Susan Benner and Skikila Smith
Skikila Smith with her mentor, Susan Benner, who retired in January as associate dean and director of the Graduate School of Education.

“Ski came into my office several years ago. . . . I knew she could be a powerfully influential teacher, but I did not know if she could get past all the hurdles in her way,” Benner recalled. “We talked and planned strategies for her to get over each of these hurdles in phases. She took things one step at a time and often returned to my office to share her accomplishments and review next steps. Projecting into the future, many children will have changed lives because they cross paths with this remarkable and resilient woman.”

Smith also received help from the federally funded Educational Advancement Program, which provides first-generation college students with academic support.

This past summer, Smith received the Charles Lattimore African-American Scholarship for Future Teachers, funded by longtime college supporter David T. Bailey, to pay for her graduate education.

Smith will spend the coming year as a teaching intern at her alma mater, Austin East High School.

“Maybe another young adult will find some sort of strength or inspiration in my story,” she said.

For Pirtle, watching his mom work multiple jobs and return to school has fueled his own desire to succeed.

“My mom is a good example,” he said. “And I haven’t known that many people who have gone on to college.”

He moved into the Volunteer Bridge Living and Learning Community in Clement Hall in July and began taking classes at Pellissippi. He plans to major in kinesiology and dreams of becoming a physical therapist.

“The Volunteer Bridge program is great,” Pirtle said. “I’ve met a lot of great people, positive people, other people who want to be successful.”

Smith shares her son’s enthusiasm for the start of this new chapter in their lives.

“It gives me a lot of joy to see him in college.” She said. “Some generational curses are being broken.”


Amy Blakely (986-974-5034,