“A lot of times people go their entire lives without realizing just how much it takes to put food on their tables, clothes on their back, and grow the very things that keep this country running,” said Jerome Linyear, a senior agricultural communications major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Linyear, recently named the Outstanding Senior in UT’s Herbert College of Agriculture, graduates this spring with a clear purpose in mind: serving as a link between the agriculture industry and the world outside.
On the surface, Linyear makes an unconventional ambassador. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in foster care on a Mennonite farm until he was five years old, he was adopted by white-collar parents from the Washington, DC, area and spent most of his youth in suburban neighborhoods in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and later Richmond Hill, Georgia, where his family moved during his high school years.
“As a suburban kid, I was under the impression food just magically appeared in the grocery store,” Linyear said.
But there were moments when he felt a connection to the land. During summers when he was young, his grandmother took him and his brother to pick strawberries they’d use to make pies and ice cream. As a teenager visiting the North Carolina State Fair, he was mesmerized by the livestock and crop shows. Later he took a temporary job working on a farm, his background music Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Nickel Creek. “When I was back in the country, I felt like I was in my element,” Linyear said.
Convinced that he wanted to pursue agriculture as a career, he spoke to a high school advisor who happened to be a UT alumnus. Crossing over the Great Smoky Mountains to visit UT for the first time, he felt he was on a journey to a home he hadn’t yet known. The feeling only intensified once he arrived on campus.
“When I got back to Georgia, I told my mom, ‘This is going to be where I go to school,’” Linyear recalled. Soon after, he covered his room in Power Ts and orange-and-white memorabilia and dedicated himself to finding a way to Knoxville.
“We can teach young people so many things in the classroom,” said Justin Crowe, UT 4-H youth development director and Tennessee state 4-H program leader, “but we can’t teach them what comes from the heart. In my 18-year career at UT, I’ve probably never seen a student who loves this university like he does.”
Linyear qualified for the Academic Common Market, which enables out-of-state students to pursue college degrees at in-state tuition rates if their program isn’t offered in their home state. He also earned scholarships from the university. “So many people went out of their way to recruit so hard, advocate for the university, and give me the financial support to come up here,” Linyear said.
His first year on campus, Linyear was a member of the bass fishing team, competing in tournaments on Pickwick and Kentucky Lakes. He joined the Block and Bridle Club, which promotes interest and scholarship in animal agriculture, and has served as the club reporter, refining his skills as a journalist, video producer, photographer, designer, and marketer.
During his sophomore year, Linyear began working as Crowe’s 4-H student assistant. With approximately six million US students and another million in 70 other countries, 4-H is the world’s largest youth development organization. More than 140,000 Tennessee youth are enrolled in its programs, which focus on topics including agriculture, community service, entrepreneurship, outdoor recreation, and STEM fields.
Linyear hadn’t participated as a kid. He was nervous at first, but if 4-H was going to be his platform to improve people’s lives, he was going to do it. Two years ago, when UT hosted a group of 4-H students from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, Crowe entrusted Linyear with putting together the educational program for the weekend.
“And when he worked with those young people, to see them light up and get excited about what we offered at UT, that was special,” Crowe said. “Because Jerome doesn’t care about your background, where you come from, or what your last name is. He cares about people and putting people ahead of himself. To me, that truly defines the Volunteer spirit.”
Since his sophomore year, Linyear has served officially as a Herbert College of Agriculture ambassador, leading campus tours and attending college fairs in hopes of providing high school students with the same welcome he experienced when he first visited campus years ago. At the moment, he’s working with the college to produce videos for engaging underserved and minority groups in outdoor education. Linyear strongly believes that agriculture—the world’s top employment field—is and should be accessible to everyone
“Even though I don’t come from an agriculture background, I’ve never felt like I don’t belong here,” Linyear said. “My hope is that other people will see me and think, ‘This industry isn’t what I thought. This guy’s thriving. Why can’t I do that?’”
In the fall, Linyear will begin a master’s degree in animal science. His journey will take him temporarily away from Rocky Top. But he expects to return to Knoxville in the coming years to make his home here. And his message will be the same one he’s shared with hundreds of students as a campus ambassador: I found my place here. You can, too.
“It all seems so far away whenever you’re 16 and you just have a dream of walking across the stage,” Linyear said. “Now I’m about to do that, and it still doesn’t feel real.”
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.
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