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Madison Woods receives a 2021 Torchbearer award  via Zoom in the JCLS office in Student Union
Senior Madison Woods is surprised with the Torchbearer Award, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's highest undergraduate honor, at the Jones Center for Leadership and Service.

Madison Woods came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as a first-generation college student with one goal: to make her family proud. A Memphis native, Woods looked at various in-state colleges, wanting an affordable option relatively close to home but also wanting to experience something new. After she toured campus with current students and learned more about various multicultural organizations, Woods decided to attend UT. But her journey didn’t start off easily.

Madison Woods
Madison Woods

Woods struggled to find her place in her first year at UT. An unexpected personal loss coupled with separation from her mother and sisters proved more challenging than she could have ever expected. “I honestly thought about transferring my first year. I didn’t know if I could do it,” Woods said. “But I ended up going on my first VOLbreaks trip and joining the Multicultural Mentoring Program.” Getting connected with the Jones Center for Leadership and Service and the Office of Multicultural Student Life changed everything.

Through programs offered by both units, Woods found her passion for social justice and service in addition to lifelong friendships. Her first VOLbreaks trip occurred during spring break of her first year. Her team traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, participating in a service–learning experience that sparked her interest in advocacy work and diversity and inclusion issues. Upon her return to campus, Woods applied to be a multicultural mentor for MMP, the first of many leadership roles she would pursue.

“As a first-generation student, I didn’t realize all the opportunities available to me,” Woods said. “The mentors and experiences I had at UT challenged me to be the best that I can be and showed me what I was really passionate about. Particularly the Jones Center provided me a space on campus where I felt comfortable to be myself.” Woods noted that the Jones Center—staffed entirely by women—is an empowering space that demonstrates daily all that can be accomplished with women in leadership. That representation helped her see herself in a similar role someday.

Madison Woods leads fellow students on a VOLbreak trip
Madison Woods leads fellow students on a VOLbreak trip, creating decorations for a youth shelter in Chicago during spring break of 2019.

Woods continued to stay involved with VOLbreaks, becoming a trip leader and then a student education director responsible for training other VOLbreaks leaders. When the coronavirus pandemic threatened to shut down the program, Woods was instrumental in reimagining the trips, creating UT’s first virtual service immersion experience.

Growing into her leadership potential, Woods went on to become president of the Multicultural Mentoring Program, an Early Learning Center student teacher, and a student representative on the Chancellor’s Commission for Blacks, among other roles. Through all of her involvement, she balanced her academics in the Chancellor’s Honors Program, completing undergraduate research with the Department of Psychology. Her research directly related to her experience as a biracial student leader working to advocate for historically underrepresented groups on campus.

Woods with Friends
Madison Woods (left) participates in an Ignite Retreat for team leaders with friends Cate Williams and Dom Green in February 2020. Ignite team leaders welcome new students to UT during an extended orientation program.

“Sometimes I felt like I didn’t always fit in. But as I got more involved and became a student leader, that also came with its own privilege,” Woods explained. “I wanted to use my privilege as a campus leader to better others. I couldn’t tell somebody else’s story, but I could help get them a seat that the table and uplift their voices.” Woods’s work resulted in a thesis that measures the effectiveness of student organizations engaged in social activism.

While her Volunteer experience might not have always been smooth sailing, Woods’s time at UT taught her perseverance, a heart for service, and the power of relationships. She’ll begin her master’s degree in higher education administration and student affairs this fall so she can continue to uplift marginalized students and work on diversity and inclusion initiatives in higher education.

Named one of UT’s 2021 Torchbearers, the university’s highest undergraduate honor, Woods exemplifies what it means to be a Volunteer. “You have to take risks. Four years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be a Torchbearer,” said Woods. “Being able to be at the forefront of a lot of these social movements in the last four years at UT has made me want to make a difference in the world.”


Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993,