UT first-generation students are trailblazers, persisting to graduation on a path their families had not traveled before them. The Volunteer community celebrated 554 first-gen graduates during a recent reception in the Student Union with remarks by Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick and Vice Provost for Student Success Amber Williams. Four of those graduates and their stories are highlighted here.
Courtney Cox, a native of Memphis majoring in journalism and electronic media, has a unique Volunteer first-gen story. Her mother was inspired to return to school to finish her degree after Cox was accepted to UT. Her parents stressed the importance of education in their household and made sure Cox was surrounded by knowledge and the historical significance of her hometown. They went to museums and supported Cox’s love of books and creative writing.
The transition to college was not easy as a first-gen student, and Cox felt like transferring at times. “I felt like I wasn’t qualified enough to be a Vol,” she said. “All of that washed away during my junior year because I realized how far I had come and that it was only up from there. I’m glad I’m first-gen, and I’m glad I chose UT to be home.”
While at UT, Cox participated in campus events and opportunities that inspired her and helped her collegiate experience become memorable. She is the treasurer of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Mu Zeta Chapter; an entertainment anchor and lead producer for UT Today; vice president of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She attended Frieson Fridays at the Frieson Black Cultural Center during her first year and connected with other students of color who would become mentors. “They were honest with me, but they also checked in on me during my first-round finals and made sure I wasn’t getting overwhelmed,” Cox said. “The camaraderie was unmatched.”
Cox acknowledges that college has been challenging and, at times, lonely. What made a difference for her was realizing her purpose at UT and that she was here to make a difference and get her degree. Her advice for new first-gen students is to prioritize and make a list of what is important to them at that moment. “One thing I wish I had known was that people grow, and sometimes friendships end, not because you all disliked each other but simply because you all grew apart, and it is natural,” Cox said.
Cox is pursuing corporate communications jobs and will visit with family in Memphis this summer.
Raj Patel of Memphis graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. Patel is a Haslam Scholar and member of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Honors Program and the Leadership Knoxville Scholars Program. Additionally, he has served as a Tickle College of Engineering Ambassador, serving to recruit prospective students—including some first-gen students—and volunteering at local elementary schools to increase interest in STEM among those students. Other involvements include serving as treasurer for UT’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics chapter and as the Student Government Association’s student body vice president for the 2020–21 academic year.
“I grew up as a child of two immigrants to the United States, where due to the circumstances that we lived in, I did not know how to speak English when I started elementary school,” Patel said. “Due to the help and dedication of countless individuals in my life, I was able to start attending college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.”
Patel credits UT Chancellor Emeritus Jimmy G. Cheek as an important mentor who has provided him with valuable guidance while at UT. Cheek also connected Patel with another first-generation graduate, Wayne Davis, who was then interim chancellor of UT and dean of the Tickle College of Engineering. “Seeing these two leaders who are also first-generation graduates like myself is inspiring, and I look up to them greatly as they embody the ideals of leadership and success that I strive to reach,” Patel said.
Finding a mentor is the top advice Patel has for incoming first-gen students. “Being able to have someone like that to help you find opportunities and guide you in a direction that will lead to success is invaluable,” Patel said.
Patel will attend the University of Texas, Austin, to pursue a PhD in aerospace engineering focusing on space propulsion systems. He hopes to become a professor at an engineering college and advance into higher education administration as a dean and chancellor.
“My time at UT has been full of fulfilling relationships and intentional growth that I am grateful for, and I would not have imagined that the kid who struggled through kindergarten would go on to be a decorated college student,” Patel said.
Belle Velasco of Knoxville was admitted to her dream university after graduating fourth in her high school class. While she always knew she wanted to go to college, finding her major was challenging. She flourished after deciding to major in agricultural leadership, education, and communications.
Arthur Leal, an assistant professor in the Herbert College of Agriculture, was Velasco’s advisor for one semester before his sudden death. From the first time they met, Leal had a positive influence on Velasco and encouraged her in a powerful way. “He made me feel as though I was going to make it to my finish line and that he was going to be right by my side to make sure of it,” she said.
Velasco advises other first-gen students to find their niche and a major they enjoy so they will succeed. “You are exactly where you are supposed to be,” she said. “You are smart enough to be here; you are not here by accident. And never give up. There are professors, advisors, and resources here to help you succeed.”
As for her plans after graduation, Velasco is getting married and traveling across the country with her husband.
“I am thankful for all the experiences I gained from my time at UT,” Velasco said. “And out of all the people who are proud of me, I can say I am the most proud of myself.”
Arrielle Kitenge of Nashville graduated with a degree in sociology with a concentration in critical race and ethnic studies. Her family’s journey to get her to UT was full of sacrifice and hard work.
“I watched my parents, who were like superheroes and idols to me, work tirelessly just to give us the comfort of safety and minimum provisions,” Kitenge said. Her family fled Rwanda after the genocide there in 1994, leaving everything and everyone they had known behind.
Kitenge said, “I remember my mom always saying people can take everything and anything away from you, but they’ll never have your brain. My parents sacrificed a lot to bring us here to the United States and give us a better life than what they started out with.”
Kitenge’s childhood was defined by her parents pushing her to do better, spending countless hours helping with homework, supporting her in extracurricular activities, and reflecting on the day during family dinners. This influence and support brought her to UT and will allow her to graduate this spring with honors. “This degree isn’t for me—it’s for all of us,” she said.
Kitenge has found mentors here at UT such as Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement; Tanisha Jenkins, former director of Multicultural Student Life; and NaQuaina Moore, assistant director of Multicultural Student Life. “These were pillars of support in my village who weren’t afraid to call me out when I wasn’t performing to my highest abilities while also calling me in with love and praise when I made them proud,” she said. “This place, these people gave me the confidence I needed to tackle small giants and prepare to take on the world that awaits me.”
Kitenge’s advice to first-year first-gen students is to embrace the beauty and peace in the unknown and imperfection. “Don’t get caught up looking left and right worrying about what everyone else is doing—just keep looking straight ahead and focus on where you want to be,” she advises. “You were chosen to go places no one else in your family could—be proud of that and believe in yourself just as much as others believe in you.”
Kitenge celebrated with her family after graduation and is currently applying for graduate school.
Lacey Wood, (865-974-8386, firstname.lastname@example.org)