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Jacob Lovin playing the role of an expert witness in a Mock Trial competition.

A turning point in Jacob Lovin’s academic career at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, came in Professor Michael Olson’s course on the psychology of prejudice. “Coming from a small town,” said Lovin, who grew up in Bean Station, Tennessee, “I didn’t have a lot of experience with social issues. The course opened my eyes to the kinds of things that were going on and made me want to study them more. It made me happy to go to class. Dr. Olson put me on the path to be a PhD.”

As a first-generation college student, Lovin had been having what he called a “kind of rough transition in getting used to college work and budgeting time for class and studying.” Having started out in pre-med, he found his passion as a psychology major, became a mock trial team captain, ran experiments in Olson’s lab, worked for two years in Professor Sarah Lamer’s Social Perception and Cognition Lab, and wrote an honors thesis on identity logic.

“The premise,” said Lovin, “is to examine how attitudes about a topic are changed when thinking about them through the lens of being an individual as compared to thinking about them through the lens of your group. For example, we ask someone how they feel about climate change as an individual, then ask someone else how they feel about climate change as a member of a religious group.”

On May 9, Lovin will receive his BA in psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. After a gap year working in his professors’ labs and continuing to explore identity logic, he plans to pursue a PhD in social psychology.

“I want to accomplish so many different things that I don’t know where to begin,” said Lovin. “I want to learn more about criminal justice, democracy, class differences, and how to minimize prejudice, encourage gender tolerance, and find better ways to talk about the issues.”

Becoming an educator in complex social issues

In his senior year at Grainger High School in Rutledge, Tennessee, Lovin was considering only a few local colleges when he went on a tour of UT. “I said to myself, ‘This is where I think I want to be.’”

Lovin discovered his main extracurricular activity, mock trial, at an open house for campus organizations. “After a summer of watching law shows,” said Lovin, “I was interested in the law. The vice president said they were going to do an attempted murder case, so I signed up. In that first competition, I played a homicide detective. In my second year I played a witness who was an animal psychologist, which was awesome because I knew all the technical information from my classes. Every mock trial competition was special. I played a cop, an attorney, and expert witnesses. As an expert witness, I found myself trying to be a teacher on a lot of topics. It got me interested in wanting to be an educator for those complex social issues. To explain them to the jury, you’ve got to boil them down to something they can understand.”

At the same time, Lovin was gaining insights into social issues by working on studies in Lamer’s Social Perception and Cognition Lab, notably in an amnesia study measuring what leads people to recall some statements better than others. The research included watching episodes of Jeopardy! to note different perceptions in verbal exchanges. “I’ve watched season 36 three or four times over,” said Lovin.

In his gap year, along with his lab work, he will marry Ciara Lopez, a nurse at Blount Memorial Hospital, on a date to be determined. They met when they were in the same homeroom for their junior and senior years at Grainger High. “I kept trying to talk to her,” recalled Lovin, “but thankfully she made the first move.”

He also hopes to work with local social movements. “I still have a lot to learn about how to get involved,” he said. “Ideally, I would just like to volunteer and try to be a part of something. Over the past year, I’ve become interested in our legal system and disparities between minorities and the majority group.

“To me, being a Volunteer means having compassion even when understanding is hard. Ultimately it means being quick to lend a hand even when you may not fully understand why someone needs help. In my time at UT, I learned a lot about the world, and learned how much I really don’t know. But the more I took in, the more I realized that not knowing should not be a barrier to putting some good in the world.”

This spring, the university will award approximately 4,825 degrees—3,548 undergraduate degrees, 1,065 graduate degrees and certificates, 121 law degrees, and 91 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 17 Air Force ROTC cadets will be commissioned, along with 22 Army ROTC cadets. Five socially distanced commencement ceremonies will take place in Neyland Stadium. See the commencement website for details.


Brooks Clark (865-310-1277,