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Lauren Akins, a 2012 nursing graduate, and her husband, country singer Thomas Rhett Akins, surprised 65 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Nursing students during Professor Maria Hurt’s online pharmacology class.

The surprise is part of a new student-focused campaign called VFL Class Crash, a series of online class drop-ins planned throughout the rest of this semester featuring well-known Tennessee alumni, Vols for Life (VFLs), and other friends of the university.

With about 10 minutes left in the class, Hurt told the students she had a surprise. She then introduced the couple who had been listening in on the lesson while sitting in the den of their Nashville home.

Akins told the students how proud they should be for persevering during this time.

“I know this is so hard, and I’m sure there are a lot of unknowns, new information, hurdles, and just a lot happening,” she said. “I just want to encourage you all. I’m so proud you chose this profession.”

Her husband then told the group, “She’s a Vol, so I’m a Vol. Thank you for all you’re doing now and everything you’re going to do in the future.”

Colleges across the country have transitioned to online learning environments in response to COVID-19. Leaders at UT are creating new ways to support student success and celebrate their achievements.

At the end of call, Hurt told the class it was the singer’s 30th birthday. Everyone unmuted themselves and sang “Happy Birthday” as the Akins’s laughed and said they hoped to thank the students in person one day.

“Thank y’all so much. This made our day, and we really appreciate you,” the singer told the students before signing off.

After the class ended, Hurt received thank you emails almost immediately. She said of the surprise, “It was a very meaningful moment in a difficult time.”


Tyra Haag (865-696-1941,