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On November 15, the night before Garth Brooks’s sold-out concert inside Neyland Stadium, Ashley Humphrey stood a few feet away from the singer during his sound check, waiting to ask for a favor.

“Garth, will you sign my graduation cap?” she shouted during a pause in the music.

Brooks hesitated. He didn’t want to set a precedent for other requests.

Humphrey, a 33-year-old nontraditional student who receives a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in technical communications, didn’t miss a beat.

“Well, not everyone here is graduating,” she said.

Brooks laughed and signed the cap, asking Humphrey if she had majored in debate.

“No, I’m married with two kids,” she replied.

Humphrey’s debate skills are matched by her perseverance. Less than a decade ago, she was a single mother struggling to balance school, work, and family. She dropped out of college on three occasions, in 2004, 2006, and 2008. She worked as a restaurant server and pharmacy technician. But even on the hardest days, she was determined to break a pattern she had seen in generations of family poverty and struggle, from her childhood in Middletown, Ohio to Clinton, Tennessee, where she moved with her family at the age of 12.

“When I was a single mom and my son was an infant, I was crying one day and I promised him I would do whatever it takes to make our lives better,” Humphrey said.

She kept the promise.

Humphrey graduated from Roane State Community College with an associate’s degree and enrolled at UT in the fall of 2015. She worked for two years as an assistant in a research lab in the Department of Microbiology, where she made growth media for algae that graduate students could use to extract viruses and study genomes. She then served as an editor for, an open-access service for academic and industry scientists to record and share detailed up-to-date research protocols.

All the while, Humphrey brought her children along for the ride. (She gave birth to a daughter in 2013 after marrying UT philosophy alumnus Ryan Humphrey.)

Humphrey and family

“You see all the stories in the news about mothers bringing children to class,” Humphrey said. “My kids played in the front yard of Ayres Hall while I took a chemistry final. That was my only option some days.”

The commitment to navigating any obstacle in her way wasn’t lost on Humphrey’s professors.

“I know a go-getter when I see one,” said Russel Hirst, associate professor of English and director of the Technical Communication program, who has taught Humphrey in technical editing and global communications courses.

Humphrey’s drive, whether she was leading a team project or editing submissions from nuclear security researchers around the world, impressed Hirst. Earlier this year, he asked her to serve as an editorial liaison, creating promotional materials and recruiting guest editors for a special issue on women in nuclear security for the International Journal of Nuclear Security, which he edits.

“She has multiple irons in the fire, and she manages everything with skill, thoroughness, and grace,” Hirst said.

Humphrey has also been promoting a scholarship fund she helped launch for Anthony Ward, a high school friend and UT student who died in January 2017 from a pulmonary embolism. He and Humphrey had graduated from community college the same year and came to UT vowing to succeed as older students after attending Clinton High School together more than a decade ago. She will wear his stole and tassel underneath her gown when she crosses the stage at commencement and hand them to his mother.

“I hope the scholarship can take the weight off nontraditional students in their quest to do better for themselves and their kids,” Humphrey said. “Being a Volunteer is about giving your time. You want to do better for those who will come after you.”

Humphrey in an ecology field lab class

Humphrey’s drive has made an impression on her family. When her children encounter their own challenges in school, they can now look to their mother’s example. Watching her story unfold over the years even inspired Humphrey’s mother to enroll in college.

After graduation, Humphrey hopes to continue writing, whether about science, nuclear security, or any other topic. As she has shown for the past decade, she is not afraid of trying something new. But she is also interested in establishing a co-working space to serve high school students, a place where they can gain a sense of confidence and belonging. She hopes her story will help them know they can thrive even if it seems impossible.

“If there’s one thing that college has taught me about myself,” Humphrey said, “it’s that I can rebound like Wilt Chamberlain.”

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.



Brian Canever (865-974-0937,​