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Fireworks sail over a checkered Neyland Stadium at a night game against Ole Miss.

On the heels of a year like no other, 2021 presented its own triumphs and challenges as UT pressed forward through an uncertain pandemic and unique hybrid landscape. But Volunteers did what Vols do best, leading the way in service and spirit. Take a look back at some favorite photos and special moments from an unforgettable year.


Student walking through morning fog on campus.
A student walks through morning fog on campus.

Coming off a year in which community was deeply sought, UT began 2021 with Big Orange Welcome, featuring six weeks of programming and more than 300 different events to welcome students back from winter break. During that time, the university also hosted several events remembering Martin Luther King Jr., gathering students, faculty, and staff for both virtual and in-person celebrations along with multiple days of service.


A vaccine is given to a person on campus.
A nursing student volunteers at a vaccine clinic.

The Volunteer spirit sprang into action when the COVID-19 vaccine became available. Nursing students played a vital role, volunteering at testing sites, helping with campus saliva testing, and providing health screenings at campus events. After the vaccine rollout began, communities asked the College of Nursing to help with distribution.


Students lounge in a circle outside on campus.
Students lounge in a circle outside on campus.

The Student Union celebrated the official opening of its third floor at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that showed off the new additions to vital student support resources. Now every corner of the 395,088-square-foot building will be put to use. March also marked one year since the COVID-19 pandemic brought unexpected change to the university. Students, faculty, and staff remained committed to their work, pushing UT forward to a fully on-campus experience in the fall.


Students perform on stage at the Student Union Auditorium in the International Dance Competition.
Students perform on stage at the Student Union Auditorium in the annual International Dance Competition.

The International House hosted its annual international dance competition, one of many programs the I-House facilitates to create meaningful relationships and experiences for both domestic and international students. April also marked Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week, when the Graduate School and campus partners celebrate the great work happening across UT.


2020 and 2021 graduates were honored during five historic commencement ceremonies in Neyland Stadiumin early May. Graduates and guests gathered safely outdoors with masks and social distancing to celebrate their perseverance through an unforgettable year. Professional fisher, television personality, and conservationist Bill Dance was awarded an honorary degree in natural resources from the Herbert College of Agriculture for his lifetime of work supporting agriculture and natural resources sciences.


students stand with Peyton Manning on the set of the Capital One College Bowl
Students stand with Peyton Manning on the set of the Capital One College Bowl TV trivia show.

A team of UT students competed in the ultimate battle of the brains in the summer series Capital One College Bowl, hosted by UT alumnus Peyton Manning on NBC. Paige Clark of Knoxville, Alexa Davidson of Hazard, Kentucky, and Corbin Hines of Cleveland, Tennessee, advanced to the quarterfinal round, making Vol Nation proud. The resurgence of the series brought back memories of UT’s 1962 College Bowl team, which had also impressed national viewers.


Erika Brown holding a medal
Vol for Life swimmer, Erika Brown.

At the Tokyo Olympics, more than a dozen UT student–athletes and alumni competed or coached, continuing a long tradition of university involvement in the Summer Games. Along with the athletes, alumna Courtney Lyle broadcast Olympic field hockey for NBC. Tennessee Athletics won a combined five medals and broke several national records by the conclusion of the games. Read more about their impressive performance.


A record number of Vols started back for the fall 2021 semester in August, with more than 31,000 new and returning students. New Vols gathered in a power T on the field at Neyland Stadium for a class photo after Torch Night, a rite of passage since 1925 in which new students pledge to live by the Volunteer Creed. Ignite summer orientation programs celebrated their 20th anniversary, building a legacy of leadership and service.

Students stand in a Power T on the field of Neyland Stadium at Torch Night.
Students stand in a “Power T” on the field of Neyland Stadium at Torch Night.


Theotis Robinson prepares to cut the ribbon in front of the newly named Robinson Hall.
Theotis Robinson prepares to cut the ribbon in front of the newly named Robinson Hall.

Two residence halls were officially dedicated in September to honor Rita Sanders Geier and Theotis Robinson Jr.—two African American trailblazers whose fights for racial equality transformed the state’s higher education system and the university. Robinson, a Knoxville native, is well known as the first Black undergraduate student admitted to UT and one of three Black students to fully desegregate the university in 1961. Geier, from Memphis, is best known for the landmark lawsuit that sought to dismantle inequities in the state’s higher education system.


A wide shot of Neyland Stadium at night with fireworks.
Neyland Stadium

Checkerboard Neyland returned for a sold-out football game against Ole Miss under the lights in October. The atmosphere on Rocky Top was filled with excitement around a fast-paced, explosive offense. Vol football put up an impressive 2021 season, with head coach Josh Heupel posting the most victories of any first-year Power Five head coach this season.


Students build a tower of cans
Students build a tower of cans with donated goods for a Homecoming competition.

UT’s 2021 Homecoming celebration called all current Vols and alumni to come together and celebrate the history, traditions, and spirit of the university. In a jam-packed week of events, Lady Vol for Life Candace Parker (’08) returned to Rocky Top to serve as grand marshal for the parade, nine monuments were dedicated to the National Pan-Hellenic Council institutions, and a record-breaking 9,450 alumni and friends donated to the university during Big Orange Give, UT’s annual day of giving.

Graduates celebrate with streamers at Torch Night: A Farewell to Thee
Graduates celebrate with streamers at Torch Night: A Farewell to Thee.


The fall semester concluded with graduate hooding and undergraduate commencement ceremonies to celebrate fall 2021 graduates in Thompson-Boling Arena. Vol for Life Inky Johnson (’07, ’09) served as the keynote speaker for the undergraduate ceremony. This year was also the first that fall graduates could participate in Torch Night: A Farewell to Thee. The newly renamed graduation tradition (formerly Aloha Oe) sends off graduating seniors, symbolically passing the torch of service.