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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, concluded the spring semester celebrating more than 5,250 graduates over three days and 11 commencement ceremonies. This year’s graduates hailed from 45 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico, and 23 countries. The ceremonies took place in Thompson-Boling Arena, where proud families, friends, and mentors gathered to honor the graduates’ accomplishments.

Lady Vol For Life Tamika Catchings (’00, ’05)—this year’s speaker at the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences ceremony—encouraged graduates to charge forward through adversity and to capitalize on their talents and superpowers to inspire the world. “Use your gifts, your money, your time to benefit others. This is the summation of what being a Volunteer is all about, and something to reflect on as you head into the next chapter of your lives,” she said.

On Saturday, Joy Harjo, the 23rd poet laureate of the United States, was awarded an honorary doctorate in humanities from the College of Arts and Sciences in recognition of her work as an artist and activist. A former faculty member in UT’s Department of English, Harjo spoke to the challenges this new generation will tackle and their collective leadership. “Go on with your timeless imaginations and gifts, and make your own story.”

In its 227 years, the university has granted 21 honorary degrees. The UT Board of Trustees recognizes individuals who have benefited the university or society through outstanding achievements or leadership. Honorees have included leaders of industry, journalists, civil rights activists, astronauts, government leaders, a Disney princess, and Dolly Parton.

Nina Howard, a graduate from the College of Communication and Information, holds up her Tennessee bear, gifted by Sharon Price John, UT alumna and CEO of Build-A-Bear.
Nina Howard, a graduate from the College of Communication and Information, holds up her Tennessee bear.

Also on Saturday, graduates from the College of Communication and Information were surprised with a gift from Build-A-Bear CEO Sharon Price John (’86), who shared her admiration for this year’s class and noted all that they have already overcome. Each graduate received a plush bear wearing a graduation cap and a College of Communication and Information T-shirt.

“Use the experiences gained here at UT to create your personal vision. Recall the inspirational moments and amazing people that support your choice to embrace optimism. Be grateful that you were afforded an environment that encouraged education and learning, and look back on this day and be emboldened by the self-confidence that I hope is bubbling over in you at this very moment,” John encouraged.

Additional commencement ceremonies were held with other speakers:

  • Herbert College of Agriculture—Carol White, distinguished alumna
  • College of Architecture and Design—Nick Dryden, architect at Allen N. Dryden Architects
  • Haslam College of Business—Greg Smith, executive vice president of global operations and supply chain at Medtronic
  • Tickle College of Engineering—Syreeta Vaughn, senior nuclear facility safety analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • College of Law—Honorable Bernice Donald, US Court of Appeals 6th Circuit
  • College of Nursing—Rumay Alexander, clinical professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing
  • College of Social Work—one BSSW student and one MSSW student
  • Graduate Hooding—Devon Carroll, PhD graduate in plant, soil, and environmental sciences

This spring the university awarded approximately 5,250 degrees and certificates—3,816 undergraduate degrees, 1,229 graduate degrees and certificates, 122 law degrees, and 83 veterinary medicine degrees. Fourteen Air Force ROTC cadets and 23 Army ROTC cadets were commissioned. Additionally, 74 graduates earned the gold service medallion, each completing over 225 hours of community service during their time at UT.

See some of the highlights from the ceremonies.