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Reflecting on 2020 could take an entire new year of its own, retracing all of the twists and turns that made it so eventful. The pandemic shaped a lot of what the year turned out to be, and it helped create some special moments for the UT community. In spite of 2020’s challenges, Volunteers met the moment while having some fun along the way. Take a look back at some favorite photos from an unforgettable year.


UT students, faculty, and staff join the Knoxville community to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade


Students, faculty, and staff joined the greater Knoxville community for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade on January 21. This was one of multiple events held to honor the life and legacy of MLK. That same weekend, the Jones Center for Leadership and Service hosted its annual MLK Day of Service, where more than 400 volunteers gathered to give back to 22 different community partners in need—the largest turnout ever for the event.


Student pours syrup on a pancake.


UT concluded its 225th anniversary celebration in 2020. On February 25, 2/25 Day, the campus community celebrated with food-themed events such as 225 Ways to Top a Pancake. The leftover food, which coincidentally came to exactly 225 pounds, was collected and donated to local food pantries. Students, faculty, and staff were encouraged to donate cans of food and to round up campus dining purchases to fund Smokey’s Pantry. Learn more about UT’s 225th anniversary.


Emma Heins hugs a friend after being surprised with the Torchbearer Award.


Six seniors were recognized for their outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and service with the Torchbearer award, the university’s highest undergraduate honor. Emma Heins of Fort Mill, South Carolina, was surprised in front of her closest friends and classmates at a Campus Events Board meeting in early March by Vice Chancellor for Student Life Frank Cuevas and Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze. Take a look back at 2020’s Torchbearer surprises.


Peyton Manning surprises a UT class on Zoom.
Peyton Manning surprises a UT class on Zoom.


Spring is always a special season on Rocky Top, buzzing with activity and vibrant blooming scenery. But in 2020 the campus was unusually quiet while students finished their semesters at home due to the coronavirus. This sudden change was difficult, but notable alumni like Peyton Manning and other supporters of the university made sure students felt the Volunteer spirit through the VFL Class Crash series. These surprise online class drop-ins were a bright spot of encouragement during a challenging season.

Neyland Stadium lights are turned on for the Class of 2020

Also in April, Neyland Stadium lit up the campus once more. Like seniors across the country, UT’s graduating class was especially affected by the pandemic, so on April 17 Neyland Stadium turned on its lights for 20 minutes in honor of their hard work and achievements. The tribute was one small way to give light to this year’s graduates.


UT Shield facemask


In times of need, Volunteers step up. Students, faculty, and staff collaborated to produce face shields for health care professionals working long hours on the front lines of the pandemic. The Tickle College of Engineering’s Innovation Collaboration Studio and the College of Architecture and Design’s Fab Lab 3D printed the lightweight headbands for the shields. Hundreds were donated to health care providers locally and across Tennessee. Also in May, UT hosted online commencement ceremonies for 4,625 graduates. A special gift was mailed to each new member of UT’s alumni family.


Facilities Services install COVID signage stickers on the ground inside of a Student Union entrance.


Over the summer, Facilities Services employees were hard at work preparing campus for students to return in the fall. More than 1,400 hand sanitizer stations were installed around campus along with 337 new touchless faucets, 326 plexiglass screens, and 240 new webcams for classroom spaces. Other safety upgrades to campus included antibacterial wipe stations as well as new health and wellness campus signage in high-traffic areas.


An overview of UT employees preparing wellness kits for people returning to campus.
An overview of UT employees preparing wellness kits for people returning to campus.


More than 200 UT faculty, staff, and student volunteers assembled 50,000 wellness kits containing masks and gaiters to keep members of the campus community safe for  the start of fall semester. Volunteers met in Thompson-Boling Arena over three days, packaging what would become the new best way to wear orange.


Students watches a drive-in style movie behind Natalie Haslam Music Center


UT welcomed a record number of new Vols in the fall for its first-ever hybrid semester. More than 250 virtual and socially distanced in-person events took place, including Slap the Rock, a drive-in movie, trivia night at the Student Union Plaza, and a twist on the longstanding tradition of Torch Night. Check out our favorite moments from Welcome Week.


On August 29, students, faculty, and staff marched on campus to promote unity in the fight against systemic racism. The march was organized by three student–athletes who set out to make their voices heard and promote solidarity in the UT campus community. Participants wore masks and heard from various student leaders.

Students walk along Cumberland Ave during the Unity March 

he sunrises over the Tennessee River and Henley Street Bridge


A Knoxville sunrise lit up the Tennessee River in early fall. Campus also received new amenities including outdoor study spaces and hammock stands so students could safely enjoy the beautiful scenery. Other construction projects continued through the fall.


Student paints the Rock as part of Vol Success Week with Division of Student Success


UT marked its first Vol Success Week in October, a week-long celebration of students’ academic success. Throughout the week, campus partners hosted more than a dozen different events to recognize students’ accomplishments and highlight how their unique strengths make them valuable members of the Volunteer family.


A masked graduate celebrates while walking across the stage during the 2020 commencement ceremony


Ten in-person commencement ceremonies honoring spring, summer, and fall 2020 graduates were held the last week of fall semester. To keep graduates and attendees safe, the ceremonies featured enhanced health and safety measures, limited guests, socially distanced seating, and mandatory masks. Even with these changes, the joy of commencement was evident in excited eyes and proud strides across the main stage.

Snow flurries fall around campus as couple walks along Ped walkway


Students completed their finals online, and an early winter snowfall dusted campus with a beautiful layer of white.