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Smokey the mascot dances in the Student Union's Rocky Top hallway.

UT’s Office of Advancement has found a variety of ways to stay connected with Vols across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams within the office are providing social engagement, key services, and virtual learning opportunities through a variety of channels to alumni, future Vols, and current students.

Welcoming New Vols
As admitted students are anxious to learn what the future holds, the office is connecting them with alumni through Call-a-Vol. Alumni volunteers call admitted students, congratulate them on confirming their enrollment, and welcome them to the Big Orange family. “We ask the alumni who sign up to call as many as 10 incoming freshmen,” said Taylor Thomas, director of alumni scholarships and student recruitment. “This year more than ever, those admitted students enjoy hearing from alumni and hearing their UT stories.”

Student Emergency Fund
The COVID-19 pandemic caused unexpected financial hardship for some students. The office launched a Student Emergency Fund, and donors have already contributed $173,000. The fund seeks to meet needs ranging from essential expenses to academics—including replacement of personal items, housing, one-time medical expenses, and emergency expenses related to dependents (for example, child care). “We asked our Big Orange family to help fellow Vols in tough spots, and our donors continue to come through in a major way,” said Chip Bryant, vice chancellor for advancement.

Social Distancing with Smokey
Parents at home with small children can quickly run out of activities. To offer some relief, the office assembled a Social Distancing with Smokey web page with Big Orange recipes (including one for Big Orange modeling clay), a Vols coloring book, science lessons, and a list of kid-friendly movies and TV shows as well as links to songs about Tennessee. “Our hope is that by being creative and innovative in our virtual programming, we can help bring some joy and meaningful interactions to our alumni during this difficult time,” said Jessy Lawrence, senior director of advancement communications.

Big Orange Zoom Backgrounds
As classes and meetings jumped into the world of Zoom, the office created downloadable Big Orange Zoom backgrounds, including the inside of Neyland Stadium, a night view of Ayres Hall, and a river view of Neyland and Thompson-Boling Arena. “We came up with this idea late one afternoon and had it launched the next morning,” said Bryant. “It’s fun to see alumni, students, faculty, and staff all join in showing their UT pride during their meetings or classes.”

Alumni attend meetings using Big Orange Zoom Backgrounds
Alumni attend meetings using Big Orange Zoom Backgrounds.

Home Sweet Home with UT Alumni
This month, the office launched Home Sweet Home with UT Alumni, a Facebook Live event that is set to run once a week into the summer on the UT Knoxville Alumni Facebook page. In the past few weeks, Origami Day founder Samantha Lane (’07) gave tips on staying productive and maintaining work-life balance during the pandemic, cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (’91) offered tips for drawing Smokey, and lawyer Tammy Kaousias (’88, ’92) offered yoga, meditation, and mindfulness tips for relaxation and easing stress.

“We have more than 250,000 UT alumni across the country and they all have unique experiences,” said Duane Wiles, associate vice chancellor of alumni affairs. “Many of them are experts in very relevant topics, and we want to share their expertise with our Volunteer community.”

Marshall Ramsey teaches how to draw Smokey.

Supporting Alumni-Owned Restaurants
Many restaurant owners have revamped their businesses to carry out or delivery-only service. To support them, the office invited alumni restaurant owners across the country to list their information for Volunteers to order takeout. In Knoxville, the list includes Mike Conner (’74) of the Chop House, Jiaoyan Cui (’11) of Tokyo Hibachi and Sushi, Daniel Davis (’74) of Double Dogs and Rafferty’s, George Ewart (’88) of Dead End BBQ, and several other alumni restaurant owners. “Every takeout or delivery order helps, and we hope this will be a useful resource for alumni to support their fellow Vols while also enjoying a great local meal,” said Eric Haag (’03, ’04), senior director of alumni programs and outreach.

Dave Ockrim (’09) in a Yankee Doodle Dandy’s food truck in New York City.

Virtual Learning and Book Club

The office has partnered with colleges and departments across campus to bring a series of virtual learning opportunities into the homes of alumni. Economist William Fox of UT’s Haslam College of Business led a webinar on the impacts of COVID-19 on the economy. Associate Professor of English Margaret Lazarus Dean and astronaut Scott Kelly (’96) discussed their book Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery. Other events include STEM chats for teachers and parents, business education seminars, and cooking classes.

The Knoxville alumni chapter, along with alumni all across the country, are meeting online throughout the summer for a virtual Volunteer Book Club. Three books written by alumni—Hung Up: Why You Should Put the Phone Down (and Other Life Advice) by Haley Evans (’11), Geezer Stories: The Care and Feeding of Old People by Laura Mansfield (’84, ’92), and A Murder in Music City by Michael Bishop (’83)— are currently being featured.

VFL Class Crashes
Last month, the university launched VFL Class Crash— a series of online class drop-ins planned throughout the semester featuring well-known Tennessee alumni, Vols for Life (VFLs), and other friends of the university to surprise students and offer words of encouragement.

Alumni from across the US, including Peyton Manning (’97), Josh Dobbs (’17), Lauren Akins (’12) with Thomas Rhett, Drew Holcomb (’03), Tee Martin (’00), Chamique Holdsclaw (’99), and Leanne Morgan (’92) have generously taken the time to drop in on online classes to show their support to students.

During a recent Zoom meeting of the a cappella group reVOLution, everything was normal until the singers began to notice Kimberly Schlapman (’92) of Little Big Town on the bottom right-hand corner of their screens. “Hey y’all,” she said, introducing herself as a graduate in family and human development. “I’m so proud of y’all. Keep singin’. Keep the music going. I want you to come see Little Big Town when we get back on the road.”

Petyon Manning points to the T on his visor during a class crash
Peyton Manning kicks off the VFL class crashes.

Spreading the Volunteer Spirit  

Alumni from all across the country are showing their support for students on social media. The office asked alumni to record videos to encourage students as they transitioned to online classes. In a video message to students posted on Twitter, Anna Pasch (’03) said, “Your alumni family is thinking about you. We know the end of this semester is not what you planned, but you are doing great, and fellow Vols are here to support you.”

Wiles said it has been incredible to watch alumni, students, faculty, and staff come together and support each other in so many ways.

“The Volunteer spirit shines bright, even in challenging times.”


Brooks Clark (865-310-1277,

UT 225th anniversaryThis story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary year. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.

Learn more about UT’s 225th anniversary