It’s the color orange that caught spring graduate Daijah Nabors’s eye one afternoon while she was sitting in her high school world geography class. When it came time for Nabors, a Memphis native, to choose a college to attend, that orange flag hanging on the wall of her geography teacher’s classroom stuck out in her mind.
The teacher, Kelsey Anito (’11), is a UT alumna and urged Nabors to consider coming to Rocky Top. After a few more nudges from friends and reassurance from her mother, Nabors committed to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and packed up her belongings to become the first person in her family to attend college.
As the oldest sibling of four, Nabors is the type of sister who gets a Mother’s Day card from her brothers and sisters. “I’ve always had this innate need to take care of things. It’s no wonder they think of me sometimes as a second mother,” she laughed. Nabors’s nurturing instinct extends beyond her family. In high school, she volunteered in the counseling office, assisting her peers with college applications and essays and gathering materials for scholarship opportunities. Wherever there was a need, Nabors filled it.
Her predisposition for service encouraged her to pursue both social work and nursing, but she wasn’t accepted into the nursing program. Instead of getting discouraged, Nabors shifted her focus fully to social work, considering the roadblock a delay in her journey rather than a denial.
“That’s just who Daijah is,” said Amanda Gandy, Nabors’s academic advisor in the College of Social Work. She’s assisted Nabors on her academic path since 2017. The two would often go well over their scheduled appointment times talking about Nabors’s courses, goals for the future, and how to stay on track through challenges.
Much of what university life had to offer was brand new to Nabors as a first-generation college student. Gandy was a main source of support through all of it. “Daijah faces problems head on with solutions and action, not apathy or complaints. She inspires me with her dedication and energy,” Gandy said.
As she was working to gather prerequisite credit hours for nursing, Nabors got involved with Clinic Vols, a student organization that helps children in the community by volunteering in school health clinics. Nabors noted that many of the students would come to see her in the clinic to chat about their problems and seek guidance. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already putting my social work cap on before I had even considered it as my career path,” she said.
Nabors embraced her new major and found other ways to get involved with the Knoxville community. This past year she interned at Austin-East Magnet High School in the Project Grad office, which connects students to college prep resources and other social services. Nabors took the initiative to create a four-year curriculum to help students identify their strengths, consider career goals, and craft a personal statement for their college applications.
Passionate about social justice and uplifting marginalized students, Nabors is constantly looking for ways to enhance the student experience at both UT and Austin-East. At UT she served as a mentor to first-year students in the Multicultural Mentoring Program and as a member of UT’s NAACP chapter, and she currently serves as an ambassador recruiting future Vols with ME4UT—Minority Enhancement for the University of Tennessee. All of her work advocates for student populations that are historically underrepresented in higher education.
“The education system is the first system of oppression for minority students. Not having the right resources at school prevents students from achieving their full potential,” Nabors explained. “Every student has it in them to succeed, but they just might not have the right person in their lives to change the course that they’re going on. That’s where I want to make a difference.”
During an unprecedented year marked by a pandemic and tragedy, Nabors has served as that needed support for her students in countless ways. Austin-East and the greater Knoxville community have been reeling from acts of gun violence, with five student deaths since January of this year alone. Nabors has approached this critical moment with the same care and compassion that earned her the title of second momma in her family.
She outlined a new outreach effort called Real-Talk. The idea came from an activity she facilitates as a ME4UT ambassador. Real-Talk will provide an intentional space that encourages students to pause and talk about their feelings unfiltered. As part of the initiative, Nabors will incorporate coping strategies as well as conversations about how to have civil discussions and tactics for violence prevention. Sessions will begin in the fall at Austin-East through Project Grad.
Rather than donations or material support, Nabors stressed the importance of being present and showing up in authentic ways for Austin-East, up close and personal. “There’s no way to make change from a distance. We need people to come into the community, build relationships with the students, and pour into their lives,” she said.
Even through this tumultuous year, Nabors has excelled academically and maintained involvement across campus as a resident assistant for University Housing and vice president of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Mu Zeta Chapter. This spring she was awarded the inaugural Marva Rudolph Scholarship for her commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Through all of her challenges, Nabors found a home at UT in the Frieson Black Cultural Center and the multicultural student organizations that encouraged her growth and passion for service.
During her final weeks on campus, Nabors was spotted in an orange T-shirt outside her residence hall. A campus visitor called in her direction, asking, “You have on orange! Can you help me?” Nabors happily obliged, answering her question and guiding her to the Student Union for further assistance. It’s a simple signal, the color orange, but it carries a lot of meaning.
Nabors plans to move after graduation to Houston, Texas, where she’ll proudly show her Tennessee alumni swag. She hopes to one day start her own nonprofit, similar to Project Grad, to serve underresourced students. Her goal is to make it easier on the next first-generation college student trying to make their way—an act of service like many that will always come naturally to Nabors. “UT amplified what was already in me. We have a Volunteer spirit. That’s just what we do,” she said.
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.
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)