Students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, weren’t able to finish their semester on campus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but notable alumni and supporters of the university made sure they felt the Volunteer spirit.
“We knew adjusting to the online environment would be tough for students, and our teams wanted to remind them that the Volunteer family is here to support them,” said Kari Alldredge, vice provost for enrollment management.
The student-focused campaign, called VFL Class Crash, involved a series of surprise online class drop-ins throughout the final weeks of the spring semester. It featured well-known Tennessee alumni—Vols for Life, or VFLs—and other friends of the university.
The campaign’s purpose was to encourage students to keep excelling in classes despite the unusual and challenging circumstances. VFL Class Crash made headlines across the country, drawing coverage from outlets that included ESPN, E! News, CNN, Sports Illustrated, and Good Morning America.
The drop-ins included:
- Legendary quarterback Peyton Manning (’97) visited a communication studies senior capstone class. “I just encourage you to keep a positive attitude and keep working like you’re doing and try to take advantage of a little bit of the extra time that you have to accomplish something else or help out somebody in need,” Manning told the students.
- Philanthropist and former nursing student Lauren Akins (’12) and her husband, country music star Thomas Rhett, surprised nursing students in an online pharmacology class. “I know this is so hard, and I’m sure there are lots of unknowns, new information, hurdles, and just a lot happening,” Akins said. “I just want to encourage you all. I’m so proud you chose this profession.” It also happened to be Rhett’s birthday, so the class sang “Happy Birthday” to the 30-year-old.
- Former UT and current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs (’17) dropped in on a fluid mechanics class and offered advice to students. “I know this isn’t probably the most ideal way to be spending your junior semester going into your senior year at home on Zoom classes,” Dobbs said. “I know you guys all know how special the University of Tennessee is to me. A lot of people are willing to give up a lot of their time and resources to help the current students.” Dobbs, who graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering, talked about jets and rockets and offered some words of wisdom.
- Lady Vol and WNBA legend Chamique Holdsclaw (’99) joined a college student personnel class with Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze to offer support and share lessons she learned from Pat Summitt. Holdsclaw also discussed her personal quarantine experience. “We’re operating in unforeseen times. I would say the blessing in disguise is, me and my partner, we have a four-month-old, and so much joy that he’s bringing to my life and when I’m having a tough day.”
- Singer–songwriter Drew Holcomb (’03) visited a religious studies class to share how his history and religious studies degree has helped fuel his success. “An engaged mind is sort of the greatest tool you can have,” Holcomb said. “Choosing things like religious studies and being curious about a fourth-century pilgrim is sort of the kind of thing that gives you lifelong curiosity, which is what I’ve taken with me from UT.” He surprised students with an impromptu concert, singing his original song “Dragons” and sharing the meaning behind the lyrics.
- Vols assistant football coach Tee Martin (’00) dropped in on a senior communications class to share a snippet of his story and offer students some words of encouragement. “For me, it was a get-out-the-bed every day and hit the ground running mentality, so whenever I faced a challenge I stared it in the eye,” Martin said. “What’s going on today in our country is a challenge, and I think we have to stare it down the eye and take it on.”
- Vocalist Kimberly Schlapman (’92) of the Grammy Award–winning country band Little Big Town joined a meeting with the ReVOLution a cappella group to offer some inspirational words and sing a little “Rocky Top.” Schlapman said, “That’s the great thing about music. Whether you study it or not, you always have it in your soul. I’m proud of y’all. Keep singing. Keep the music going.”
- Comedian Leanne Morgan (’92) dropped by a product development class to encourage students to use their talents for good. Morgan also spread some cheer and cracked a few jokes about Tiger King and spray tans. “What I would tell y’all is, I would say you need to be authentic. Be who you are. Let your light shine,” Morgan said. “Everybody’s got a gift. Whatever that gift is, use it in life and you’ll zoom! It’s all there is to it.”
- Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden crashed a statistics class with a technical assist from his wife, Cindy—a UT alumna—to get his webcam working. He talked to students about leading the charge and working hard. “Stay positive and keep working. We’re all in this together,” Gruden told the class. “Take care of your families. Take care of your grandmas and grandpas and do great for Mrs. Morris. Go collect your data!”
- Former Vols basketball player Grant Williams (’19), now with the Boston Celtics, visited a a retail, hospitality, and tourism management class. He joked about whether Boston’s 7-foot-5 center Tacko Fall makes him feel short and discussed his transition to the NBA. He encouraged the students to trust that people will support them and to offer support to others. “Being able to be there for someone in these times—you never know how impactful that will be,” he said.
- Lady Vols basketball legend and WNBA star Candace Parker (’08) dropped in on a finance class to share with students some lessons she learned from the late Pat Summitt. A student asked what mindset students need to have to be successful, “People and passion. If you surround yourself with that, you won’t fail,” Parker said.
- FOX NFL analyst and former Vol football standout Charles Davis (’86, ’89) visited a sports history class and chatted about the NFL draft, ESPN’s popular documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ final season, and career advice. “Let’s all keep being careful out there—keep helping our fellow persons,” he said.
- John Tickle (’65)—industrial engineering alumnus, longtime supporter of the university, and eponym of UT’s Tickle College of Engineering—visited with students in a senior engineering class. “Have enthusiasm and be interested in whatever you are doing,” he told the students. “A lot of people that you’ll go to work for, they’ll see that enthusiasm you have. Don’t be shy, and speak up.”
- Lady Vols basketball coach Kellie Harper (’99) chatted with a public speaking class. Harper’s son, Jackson, made a special guest appearance just as Harper was talking about how Pat Summitt was a great mother and how much Summitt loved her players. “Hopefully you are taking advantage of some family time, some down time while continuing to do your studies,” Harper said. “You guys hang in there. I’m proud of you.”
- US Air Force General Mike Holmes (’81) joined in with an Air Force ROTC class. Holmes, who studied electrical engineering at UT, advised the cadets that life as an officer in the military will have its ups and downs. “Even as a four-star general, you have days where you do good and some days where you don’t think you did so well,” Holmes said. “Nobody expects you to have all the answers, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. I wish you all the best of luck.”
- Financial guru Dave Ramsey (’82) and author Anthony O’Neal dropped in on an investment and portfolio management class. Ramsey, who majored in finance and real estate, fondly recalled his time in the Haslam College of Business. “I had great professors in investments, accounting, and statistics,” he said. “You’ll use these tools the rest of your lives.”
- Vols baseball head coach Tony Vitello visited a business class to check on a few of his players and offer some advice on motivating yourself. “The one thing you always want to do is turn negatives into positives,” he said, and advised the students to take advantage of this time of quarantine by learning new skills. “I’m trying to learn Spanish right now.”
- Chad Holliday (’70), an industrial engineering alumnus and current board chair of Royal Dutch Shell, dropped by a quality control class to share the importance of working for a company they’re proud of. “Be sure you enjoy going to work every day,” he said. “Life’s too short not to.” Holliday, who received an honorary doctorate from UT in 2012, encouraged the students to stay connected to their university. “I think that will serve you well.”
“Our ultimate goal with VFL Class Crash was to give our students an incredible one-of-a-kind experience and add a layer of fun and surprise to their new virtual norm,” said Lauren Rucker, director of communications for enrollment management. “Chancellor Plowman challenged us to be creative and collaborative and to think about our students first. The Volunteer family really stepped up.”