From his first week on campus four years ago, Mustafa Ali-Smith had his mind set. He would become the first person in his family to graduate from college. But as important as succeeding academically was to him, he knew he wanted to do more, too.
“College is about more than just getting good grades,” Ali-Smith said. “You want to be involved. I always knew I wanted to help others.”
It’s a trait Ali-Smith learned from his family in Nashville, where his dad works in security and his mom in the medical field. His two older brothers had attended college but were unable to finish. Throughout his time at UT, Ali-Smith has carried their expectations on his shoulders, knowing that if he succeeded he could establish a platform to improve his own life and also make a difference in the lives of others.
“It doesn’t matter where you start the race,” Ali-Smith said. “We can all use our privileges to help other people.”
Ali-Smith graduated December 13, culminating an undergraduate college career defined by service.
This fall, the university awarded 1,191 undergraduate degrees, 1,171 graduate degrees and certificates, and one law degree. UT’s graduate hooding was held at 4:30 p.m. December 12 and undergraduate commencement at 9 a.m. December 13, both in Thompson-Boling Arena. See the commencement website for details.
In his time at UT, Ali-Smith—who majored in public administration in the Haslam College of Business and minored in political science—has served as chapter president of the NAACP and as a student ambassador with Minority Enhancement for the University of Tennessee (ME4UT). In 2017, he was named a Leadership Knoxville Scholar by the university’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service, where he has just finished a senior internship. Off campus, he has interned with the Tennessee General Assembly and the Family Justice Center, where he created a financial literacy seminar for victims of domestic violence, and served as a pre-college mentor with Project Grad Knoxville.
“It was hard to balance at times,” Ali-Smith said. He put pressure on himself to succeed in the classroom, serve in the community, and be a campus leader, even though he was often playing catch-up as a first-generation student.
“I may have started my race behind others, but I accepted life isn’t supposed to be comfortable. I was going to keep working to get to the front.”
Outside of his official service roles, Ali-Smith has been one of the faces of civic engagement on campus, from helping students register to vote to establishing a forum where they could discuss timely political topics with campus and community leaders.
“Mustafa has really been a voice for students, especially those from our underrepresented and marginalized populations,” said Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small. “He’s boldly demonstrated leadership, even in uncomfortable times and uncomfortable settings.
“He’s tried to live his life as an example and be a role model on campus by consistently demonstrating integrity and big-picture visionary thinking.”
When racist messages appeared earlier this year on social media and the Rock, Ali-Smith stepped up to be a part of the response. He engaged in conversations with administrators and rallied students together. It led to hard conversations and moments of vulnerability when he had to confront harsh realities. But it’s the way he embraced being a Volunteer.
“The people and the belief that positive change can come from discomfort and hard moments—I know I wouldn’t have found that anywhere else,” Ali-Smith said. “If I hadn’t stood in the face of adversity here, I wouldn’t know how to approach the challenges our society faces when I leave.”
In the fall of 2020, Ali-Smith will attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Liberal Arts program, where he will concentrate on human rights and African American studies. He’s not sure where he’ll go from there. Wherever it may be, he’ll plan to be there serving, speaking, and standing up for others.
“I’m not focused on who I want to be,” Ali-Smith said. “I’m focused on what I want to do. And that I will be there for those who feel like there’s no one out there to help them.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)