Geghie Alayna Davis can still hear Mamaw Sue singing from the piano in her living room.
Davis, who grew up in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Maynardville in rural Union County, Tennessee, sat for hours singing with her and listening to the stories that accompanied her songs—stories of growing up without electricity and indoor plumbing and making her own clothes with her mother, like in Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors.”
“Dolly was her favorite,” Davis says. “She’d watch her on the Grand Ole Opry and she’d always tell me: ‘It doesn’t matter what people think about you, Geghie. You never forget where you come from.'”
Davis promised she wouldn’t. This week, she graduates from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design—the first in her family to earn a college degree.
But that is not the only first for Davis. She is also the first Union County resident in recent memory to be selected for a Fulbright US Student Award. Later this summer, when she leaves for the United Kingdom to pursue a master’s degree in design at Northumbria University, Davis will become the first UT graphic design student or alumni to pursue such an opportunity through the Fulbright program.
It’s all a long way from where she started.
As a girl, when she wasn’t singing or playing guitar at her grandmother’s house, Davis was teaching herself design skills using software on her family’s desktop computer. Her parents had for years run a printshop with offices in Knoxville and Maynardville, and they guided her. By high school, Davis was helping her mother to lay out and design a newspaper she ran out of the family home.
Her love for design deepened while attending Pellissippi State Community College through a Tennessee Promise Scholarship. But Davis’s craft was refined at UT, where she has immersed herself since transferring in 2017. In April, she and three classmates were recognized with a gold award at the 2020 Office of Undergraduate Research Awards (EURēCA) for a video they produced to spread awareness of noise-induced hearing loss for the UT Health Science Center’s Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology. The same video earned her a juror’s award at the 73rd Annual Student Art Competition.
“Of course, Alayna is very talented,” says Sarah Lowe, director for the School of Design. “But what got her to where she is now is that she is also absolutely tenacious. There are not many students who come to us and decide from the first day they are going to jump headfirst into every opportunity.”
Lowe participated in a Fulbright program to Norway as a faculty member in 2012. The experience was transformational. For three years afterward she traveled to Washington, DC, to review applications for faculty seeking to participate as Fulbright scholars in Norway and Iceland.
“You have to be very dedicated to go through the entire application process,” Lowe says. “Alayna never wavered. She is the only student I’ve had to date who has followed it through all the way.”
Davis learned about Fulbright opportunities through the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships (ONSF), which presented to one of her spring 2019 design classes. UT is among the nation’s top-producing universities for student Fulbrights—in the past two academic years, the university was fourth and seventh, respectively, among all public research universities and top-ranked in the SEC. Davis was quick to follow up with the ONSF to develop her Fulbright application in the summer and fall of 2019. She was shortlisted as a semifinalist this January before being selected in April.
As part of the application process, students must identify a topic area they’d like to research or pursue overseas. Growing up in a rural area, Davis had relied on dial-up and later satellite internet service. Before applying, she researched how the United Kingdom is expanding internet to its rural communities with the goal of eventually guaranteeing access to all its citizens. It resonated with her.
“There’s people in my community who, right now, while schools are closed because of COVID-19, cannot access their schoolwork,” Davis says. “A lot of people in rural America and rural Appalachia don’t have access to basic, affordable internet. What if I could do something about that?”
Three years ago, just before starting at UT, Davis was awarded a Tennessee Consortium for International Studies (TnCIS) scholarship to spend three weeks studying abroad in Scotland. She fell in love with the people and the culture. “It felt like Southern hospitality—like I was still in Maynardville,” Davis says. “I knew I wanted to go back one day.”
When it came time to select her project proposal for her Fulbright application, she thought she could go back to the UK and learn how to use design to help promote rural internet access initiatives, with the idea of bringing her research back and applying it in Union County.
While the ONSF works with students to develop competitive applications and facilitates UT’s campus review process, it is ultimately the Fulbright commission for each receiving country that decides who it accepts.
“A big part of why her application was successful is that she zeroed in on something with personal resonance,” says Andrew Seidler, director of the ONSF. “She is going abroad to learn something and then bring it back home. It came across in everything she wrote.”
As a student, Davis has always found ways to connect her studies to home. She minored in entrepreneurship in order to understand the business side of design and interned in motion and interaction design at Discovery Inc., and in user experience for Radio Systems Corporation. She also designed the logo for the City of Maynardville.
Through her Fulbright project Davis hopes to learn more about communication design, a mixed discipline focusing on how to use media to move people in support of common causes. She may come back and start her own company; or she may become a voice for an international campaign for internet access. She is not counting anything out.
All she knows is that she’s going to do what her grandmother, who died a few months after she returned to Tennessee from Scotland, taught her. After she finishes her Fulbright experience, Davis is coming home.
“I want people to know they can get their education, then come back and use it to make Union County better for the future,” Davis says. “That’s what I plan on doing.”
This spring, the university will award 4,625 degrees—3,415 undergraduate degrees, 1,014 graduate degrees and certificates, 117 law degrees, and 79 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force cadets and 17 Army cadets will be commissioned. Although in-person commencement ceremonies in May had to be postponed for safety, UT plans to honor 2020 graduates on campus in person as soon as it’s safe. See the commencement website for details.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)