More than 50 first-year students are participating in the first class of the Volunteer Impact Academy, or VIA, an immersive four-year experience for students who embody what it means to be a Volunteer. Created through a partnership between UT’s Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service and Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the academy equips participants with the skills to improve themselves, the campus, local communities, and the world beyond.
From more than 11 states and two other countries, these students represent nine of the 11 colleges here at UT. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they focus on building connections not only with one another but also within the campus and local communities. Workshops, gatherings, and presentations have already made an impact on their experiences in just one semester.
“The program was created to provide students with a scaffolded leadership and service experience that aligns who we are as Volunteers and complements existing programs within the Jones Center for Leadership and Service,” said Brooke Squires, JCLS coordinator. “It offers a unique opportunity for students to acquire the foundational skills to build on their personal strengths and improve our campus, local communities, and beyond from the moment they step foot on campus. It is a great way to get involved and build community with other students that share an interest in leadership development and service engagement.”
The program is helping students recognize their strengths and how they can make a difference in the Knoxville community and wherever they call home after UT. With just one semester under their belts, the 56-student group is already feeling the impact of the academy on their campus experience.
Creating these connections has shown to help students feel a strong connection to the university, involving them in other student organizations and campus leadership opportunities. First-year student Mya Perez is a Texas native majoring in elementary education with a minor in global studies and business administration. In addition to VIA, she is a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, where she serves as the director of public relations and marketing, and a staff member for VOLthon, an annual fundraiser for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
“I definitely think that the academy has helped me connect with the university,” said Perez. “I also feel like VIA has helped to connect me with the Knoxville community because being from out of state, I was not familiar with many of the service opportunities in Knoxville. After beginning the requirements of the academy, I have familiarized myself with some of the service opportunities and people of the Knoxville community, which makes it feel more like home.”
Kyla Thornton, a first-year business management major from Memphis and member of the UT Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, felt VIA would help her expand and build upon her extensive volunteer experience.
“Growing up, volunteering is always something I knew I wanted to take part in,” said Thornton. “During high school, I did different volunteer events through the organizations I affiliated with. When going through the college application process, I knew I wanted to be somewhere that held volunteering true to their core values. That is why I chose UT. When I ran across the Volunteer Impact Academy, I knew it would be a great fit for me. I knew that this organization was going to hold me accountable for volunteering in my community while also guiding me in making a positive impact for Knoxville and my peers.”
Students take part in different service and leadership opportunities throughout their time in VIA, in addition to hearing presentations from campus leaders and administrators. The group is participating in a number of activities during their first year:
- Ignite, an opportunity to serve the community and get to know UT before classes begin in the fall
- A 25-hour service requirement
- A course from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
- CliftonStrengths, a strengths-based talent assessment that encourages students to be intentional about their leadership, academic, and professional development
- MLK Jr. Days of Service
- Catalyst, a one-day program for emerging student leaders to connect with others and learn more about their own leadership story
“They are very excited and ready to be involved on campus and in their communities,” said Squires. “Several have already completed half of their required service hours or more as well as jumping into some leadership roles within various organizations.”
Regular meetings have allowed the students to connect with one another as they discover new things about themselves and their goals at UT and beyond.
“Each meeting I learn something new about myself and how to contribute positivity to my community,” said Thornton. “The activity I enjoyed the most was where we had to create a headline for what we would like to be known for. This activity allowed us to look at ourselves in a positive light and allow our peers to understand us and our goals. I also enjoyed writing down our goals by answering different questions. This allows us to dive deeper into what we want to achieve for ourselves and the community.”
Application to VIA is open to high school seniors with a GPA of 3.0 or higher who have completed their admissions application to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for the upcoming fall semester. Applicants should be actively engaged with the community through service projects, clubs, athletics, work, etc., and be interested in personal leadership development and community service engagement. Applications for fall 2023 will open on August 1.
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)