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Redrick Taylor, Director of Diversity Recruitment and Outreach, makes a surprise introduction to
Seniors Anndrena Downs, Zakoyous Houston, and Mariusi Irankunda of Austin-East High School celebrate their surprise admission to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, surrounded by their family, coaches, and principal.

Zakoyous Houston had been checking his mailbox daily waiting to hear from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, about his admission decision. He had been accepted into every other school he’d applied to but was holding out hope for one last offer.

On Wednesday, December 8, the senior at Austin-East Magnet High School got the news he’d waited since elementary school to hear: Houston, along with two fellow Roadrunners, was going to be a Vol.

“It was a special day,” said William Gillette, Houston’s father, who was able to attend the surprise announcement. “Most of his family members never went to college, so he’s an example of whatever you do in life, you can do it as long as you work hard.”

Members from UT’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions surprised 11 students over the course of a week at Austin-East, Central, and Fulton High Schools with admission to the university as the first members of the Class of 2026. The students were welcomed into the Volunteer family by UT admissions staff, fellow classmates, and their families, with balloons and a Big Orange celebration.

“As the state’s flagship land-grant institution, it is our mission, commitment, to serve the entire state of Tennessee,” said Redrick Taylor, director of diversity recruitment and outreach in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. “These young Tennesseans exemplify what it means to be a Vol: excellence in academics, leadership through service, resilience, and an intrinsic motivation to make the world a better place. We are honored to welcome them to the Volunteer community and look forward to the ways in which they enrich our campus environment.”

Austin-East, Central, and Fulton are three of 38 Tennessee high schools whose students are eligible for the university’s Flagship Scholarship, which covers tuition and mandatory fees for up to four years when combined with the HOPE Scholarship. All admitted first-time first-year students who graduate from one of the designated Flagship high schools are eligible for the scholarship.

“This scholarship is one of the many ways in which we are making an effort to invest in the communities and make sure that we are creating an inclusive environment for students to realize their dreams through education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” said Taylor. “The honor is ours to have them potentially join our community. I feel we have much more to gain from them than we have to give them long term.”

Fulton’s Jahneulei Weste, among other surprised recipients, will be the first member of her family to attend college. She aspires to become the CEO of her own information technology company.

“It means everything to me,” she said. “I come from a first-generation American family. I was really worried about financing for college, but I feel very secure now.”

Admitted Students

Austin-East students gathered in the school’s auditorium for what they thought would be a speech on leadership, but Houston (business administration exploratory track), Anndrena Downs (education, health, and human sciences exploratory track), and Mariusi Irankunda (geology and environmental studies) were called to the stage and surprised with admissions offers instead.

Central Bobcats Madeline Belew (mathematics), Trinity Jones (elementary education), Kenna Lyle (university exploratory track), Madalyn Marshall (arts and sciences preprofessional exploratory track), and Ashlynn McManus (construction science and agricultural systems) were surprised in their classrooms and during lunch break with their admissions offers.

Fulton seniors Weste (computer science), Melany Juan-Morales (computer engineering), and Tabby Whittenberg (elementary education) received a Big Orange welcome during their classes.

Early action admission decisions were released Wednesday. A second release of notifications will be released in mid-February 2022, and admitted students have until May 2 to confirm their enrollment.


Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375,