During her first months on campus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, first-generation graduate Emily Medford considered herself an imposter. Born and raised in Morristown, Tennessee, Medford questioned her place and purpose at the university. The city and campus felt too large and seemingly common information was news to her, making it difficult to seek help and find resources.
“There was so much that I didn’t know that came so easily to some of my friends,” Medford said. “There were many moments when I wasn’t sure if I could do it.”
In the fall of 2019, UT hosted an event called Dear World, engaging students, staff, and faculty in an experience that celebrated the individual stories of the Volunteer community and their collective impact. Participants were asked to pick a word that could spark a conversation for them to tell their story. Medford picked “imposter” and used the event as a chance to address imposter syndrome as a low-income first-generation college student in a STEM field.
Her vulnerability resonated with other participants, both on social media and in person at the Dear World showcase. The response she received from the campus community was overwhelming. “So many people lifted me up. It was an important moment for me where I felt like my story mattered and that my feelings were valid,” Medford said.
Dear World gave Medford the platform to share her story, but her accomplishments and ability to connect with others came from her own talent and desire to serve.
Coming to the university
When Medford was working on her college application her senior year of high school, her family thought she was talking about an app for her phone. She had to overcome multiple barriers to attend a four-year institution, but she earned a pathway to UT through the ASPIRE Scholarship program.
ASPIRE offers a four-year scholarship to academically talented Appalachian high school seniors who are interested in a STEM field and eligible for the Pell Grant. Selected students live together in the Discovery Living and Learning Community for two years, are paired with a faculty mentor, and participate in programs designed to assist with their transition to university life.
Medford wanted to go to medical school, making her a perfect fit for the program. She entered UT as a neuroscience major with a pre-med concentration. Her first moments on campus were overwhelming, but Medford found friends through Ignite Serves—an extended orientation program that introduces students to campus traditions and the greater Knoxville community. “Getting to understand the university and what I was about to be a part of changed my outlook on coming to UT,” Medford said.
On the final night of Ignite, she participated in an engagement fair where dozens of student organizations set up booths to introduce themselves to interested first-year students and recruit new members. Medford discovered VOLS 2 VOLS Peer Health Educators at the fair. The student group works in conjunction with the Center for Health Education and Wellness, educating students about health and wellness topics. VOLS 2 VOLS allowed Medford to learn more about her interest in public health and serve her peers.
“Emily has a great ability to build relationships and bring people together around a shared vision,” said Bilqis Amatus-Salaam, wellness coordinator with the Center for Health Education and Wellness. “Her dedication and positivity make others feel comfortable and cared for. She welcomes people in and helps them feel like they matter.”
Building a lasting legacy
As Medford found her place on campus, she uncovered a love for student-led events. Her favorite involvements were things that allowed her to be out on campus engaging with peers, like serving as a resident assistant for University Housing, an undergraduate senator for Student Government Association, and the co-director of SGA’s Health and Wellness Committee.
In addition to her campus life activities, Medford participated in the 1794 Honors Program and worked as a research assistant studying the perceptual and motor development of infants. Her studies aimed to build a better understanding of how infants learn to control their bodies and plan out their movements using the perceptual information they take in through senses such as vision or touch.
She also served as a summer camp counselor for Imagining Possibilities (formerly known as Possibilities in Postsecondary Education and Science, or PiPES), a precollege program that provides rural Appalachian high school students with opportunities to learn about STEM careers. “Most of the students we work with in the program are first-gen or grew up similarly to how I grew up,” said Medford. “It’s a really rewarding experience because I can give back in ways that I know matter, since I was just like them.”
Service has been as central to Medford’s experience at UT as her academic courses. When the coronavirus pandemic sent students home suddenly in the spring of 2020, Medford decided to spend her free time tutoring at her hometown Boys and Girls Club. Upon returning for her senior year, she started volunteering at UT Medical Center, working at entry checkpoints and assisting with patient discharges. Undaunted by the pandemic, Medford felt a greater desire to serve despite the risks. “I’m able and willing, so why not volunteer if I can do something to help?” she explained.
That attitude and her exemplary record earned her the 2021 Extraordinary Campus Leadership and Service Award, which recognizes graduating campus leaders for their significant service to others. The award was a proud moment for Medford, who never would have imagined herself in this position four years ago.
As commencement approaches, Medford is excited and nostalgic over starting a new chapter. “I can’t imagine how college would’ve been if I had been anywhere else. Being here truly gave me so many opportunities and put me in touch with so many people who have the same values, goals, and vision as me,” she said. “Being a Volunteer means striving to be a friend, resource, and light to others. It’s about being the person you needed during hard times.”
Medford will be applying to medical school to pursue her dream of becoming a physician. With no clear specialty in mind just yet, her main goal is simple—to help people—something she’s always excelled at as a Volunteer.
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 and 22 Army ROTC cadets will be commissioned. 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)