Mikayla Woltman, a junior animal science major from Port Saint John, Florida, was going through her normal Wednesday routine when she noticed a string of text messages from her dad. “Honey, you’re about to receive a call,” the first message read.
The next one: “Answer it.” The third: “It’s the chancellor.”
Woltman had missed a call just a few minutes earlier from an unknown number. When she listened to her voice mail, she heard UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman’s voice asking her to call back when she had a moment.
“Apparently when she couldn’t get ahold of me, the chancellor called my parents and talked to my dad,” Woltman said. “When I called her back, she was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for you! It’s so nice to hear from you.'”
The two talked about Woltman’s schedule, her six classes moving online, and other things, too—how Woltman, a hands-on learner, has really missed physically interacting with the livestock in her animal science labs, and how she’s been binging Netflix in her free time during social distancing.
The chancellor asked if there was anything she could do to help. “I’m actually really good,” Woltman told her. “I just think it’s really cool to hear from you. Thank you for offering.”
For the past two weeks, since classes, academic tutoring and advising, and other student services moved online following spring break, UT faculty and staff members have called more than 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The goal is to reach all 29,000 students by the end of the semester.
The idea to make the calls came from Amber Williams, vice provost for student success, and two colleagues—Kari Alldredge, vice provost for enrollment management, and Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze.
“We wanted to know that what we were doing is helpful—that we’re providing students with the resources they really need and desire at this time,” said Williams. “So we said, ‘Let’s ask the students. Let’s just check in and see how they’re doing.'”
The three pitched the idea to university administrators and other leaders across the colleges and campus units. They would send out a one-question survey to all students, then start making calls based on the responses to give students a chance to ask about technology, financial aid, summer classes, or any other needs. After hearing the idea, employees—more than 330 of them—asked if they could volunteer to make phone calls.
Jamie Lemons, a One Stop counselor, has made hundreds of calls from home. Often she reaches parents before she can get to a student. She makes sure to listen to their concerns, too.
“Times are hard. We’re all working from home, juggling a lot on our plate,” said Lemons, who has a nine-year-old and two twin daughters who are juniors studying psychology at UT.
“When you’re a parent speaking with another parent who also has college-age students who are going to UT and going through the same experience, it’s a bonding moment, knowing someone called to check on my child,” Lemons said.
Becky Sparks, a financial wellness coach for One Stop, calls 50 students every session she logs—about 350 calls total so far. Some have confused her for a telemarketer, then been surprised to hear a real person, not an automated message, on the other end of the line. On one call, the student interrupted her: “Wait a second, you’re calling every student at UT?” She paused, then asked, surprised: “You’re calling me?”
“She couldn’t believe that out of all the students on UT’s campus she was one of the ones getting a phone call,” Sparks said. “She wasn’t just a number. She’s a student and we’re worried about her.”
“This is a community where students and parents matter,” said Julian McAliley, a One Stop counselor.
Every time he picks up the phone, McAliley doesn’t know if he’ll get a voice mail message, reach a frustrated student, or talk to someone who’s genuinely happy to hear from a person who wants to help answer questions they may not have yet thought to ask.
“Don’t be afraid to give this feedback. Critique us,” McAliley said. “Whether it be One Stop Student Services, the Student Success Center, academic advisors, the chancellor or a director, we’re all here because of these students.”
Woltman took away that feeling from her phone call. Checking in on one another—that’s what Vols do.
“Seeing it acted out in this difficult time, making sure that everyone is OK, that just really resonates with me,” Woltman said.
Some calls last 20 minutes. Others are over quickly. Every caller ends their conversation a different way. The chancellor spoke to Woltman about the show Tiger King and encouraged her to check it out next time she’s on Netflix. (“I guess I should now because the chancellor suggested it,” Woltman said, laughing.) Lemons and Sparks let students know they’re just a phone call away if they need them. McAliley tells students he cannot wait to see them on Rocky Top, pompons in hand, ready to welcome them back when this is all over.
Jada Russell, director of student services for the College of Nursing, likes to remind students of a phrase she’s been sending out in emails: “Writing history sometimes chooses you. You don’t choose it.”
“What we do about this pandemic is going to be in the history books 20, 50, 100 years from now,” Russell said. “We’re going to read about how our university thrived in this situation.”
Students in need of support can email the Office of the Dean of Students at email@example.com. For academic assistance, contact the Student Success Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. For financial questions, email One Stop a email@example.com or call 865-974-1111. Students in need of mental health services can reach out to the Student Counseling Center at 865-974-2196. Those in distress, or concerned about another student, can call 865-974-HELP (4357).
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)