Inside the back cover of her cell phone, Maria Urias, of Lenoir City, Tennessee, keeps a small sheet of paper with the word resilience written on it. Urias has carried that slip of paper with her for the past four years. During Ignite Summit, an extended orientation program she participated in as an incoming first-year student, Urias was challenged to identify her top personal values. Resilience is what she picked, and what she has made the driving force of her life every day since.
When Urias was just a year old, her family moved from Curitiba, Brazil, where she was born, to rural Appalachia. The family faced many obstacles moving to the US, navigating long-distance relationships and working to secure visas and permanent residence cards. Watching her parents and older sister refuse to give up on achieving their dreams inspired Urias to pursue a degree at UT.
Unsure of exactly what she wanted to study, Urias picked political science on a whim. In 2017, she applied and was accepted into the Honors Leadership Program, which requires students to participate in Ignite Summit and reside in a living-learning community with other members of the program.
“Being in the honors leadership program and living in that community-style dorm my freshman year gave me amazing leadership-oriented friends who have empowered me at every single step,” Urias said. From her first moments on campus, she felt a level of community she’d never experienced before.
Those relationships propelled her forward, despite initial self-doubt. “I think one of the biggest challenges I faced in college—something that a lot of women in academia face—was the worst imposter syndrome,” Urias said. As she struggled to find her footing, Ashton Cooper, assistant director of the Honors Leadership Program, stepped in to help her refine her area of study.
With so many intersecting interests, she wanted to combine studies related to public policy, social justice, and community development. The solution: a sociology major with a triple minor in political science, leadership studies, and social entrepreneurship. “Being raised as an immigrant in East Tennessee, I was able to live the duality of both being an outsider while also being raised in this distinct Southern culture,” Urias explained. “This contrast made me into a sociologist before I could even put that into words.”
After taking a few classes across departments, Urias was excited to dig deeper into the field. Using an interdisciplinary approach, she got involved with undergraduate research to take her academic experience to the next level. As a senior, she traveled to Loretto, Tennessee, as part of a sustainable communities political science course associated with the Appalachian Teaching Project. The experience encouraged her to focus her thesis for Baker Scholars—a public policy engagement program—on how COVID-19 is affecting economically distressed communities in Appalachian Tennessee.
“I have been taught so much by the various mentors I have had throughout my life, many of which are from here,” said Urias, who says she feels shaped by the history and culture of the region. “I want to give back to this community the same way it has given back to me.”
To Urias, sociology should be a tool to help improve communities through understanding systems of oppression as well as envisioning a better future in a way that is meaningful to those who will live it. Her thesis aims to do that for the community she calls home.
Like her thesis, many of the projects Urias has worked on as an undergraduate are motivated by her drive to serve. An active member in the Student Government Association, she wrote a referendum to amend UT’s Student Code of Conduct, strengthening its civility clause to better support students. She also proposed finding a creative way to recognize civil rights trailblazers Theotis Robinson and Rita Sanders Geier. As a result of her advocacy, two residence halls are being renamed in their honor. As a VOLbreaks leader she facilitated a service immersion experience for students, educating them on immigration issues. And as an Ignite team leader, she welcomed and assisted first-year students through their transition to the university.
Through all of her involvement on campus, Urias has demonstrated key traits of what it means to be a Volunteer. In March she was recognized with a Torchbearer award, UT’s highest undergraduate honor. “I always viewed this kind of thing as unachievable because of that imposter syndrome,” Urias said. “I want people to know as long as you’re doing what you’re passionate about you are qualified, you are valued, and you can be everything you’re dreaming of.”
This fall, Urias will begin working toward a master’s degree in community development and action at Vanderbilt University. She still plans to hold on to the resilience card in her phone, saving it as a reminder of all she’s overcome and all that she can accomplish in the future. “Working against complacency and having the courage to take initiative and to just truly love those around you took me places I didn’t know I could go,” Urias said. “Even in times when I’ve failed, continuing to push forward and knowing the Volunteer family is behind you makes all the difference.”
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)