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Kelly Sauskojus, a tutor from the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center, works with a student at the Austin-East High School Writing Center
Kelly Sauskojus, a fourth-year English Ph.D. student and Community Engagement Academy fellow, works with an Austin-East Magnet High School senior on her personal essay topic.

A new partnership between the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High School has seniors gaining confidence during the college application process by writing their personal essay. Students and staff from UT’s Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center are working individually with the seniors to discover their personal stories and champion their writing skills.

A team of undergraduates, graduate students and English lecturers travel to the high school twice a week to offer tutoring appointments.

“A lot of students don’t complete their college applications because of their essays. The essay itself represents a real roadblock. Students are worried that what they have to put in the essay isn’t worthy,” said Kirsten Benson, director of the center.

Kelly Sauskojus, a fourth-year English Ph.D. student and Community Engagement Academy fellow, and Anne Langendorfer, senior lecturer and community outreach fellow in the English department, were part of the team that began working with seniors in 2021, just a month before the December deadlines.

The team saw a growth in confidence in Austin-East students and an opportunity to strengthen their impact.

“If personal essay writing is happening the way it should be, you’re really getting to know somebody and you’re going to not just affirm their writing but who they are as a person,” said Sauskojus. “As a graduate student, it helps me to be able to work as a team rather than independently. It’s also been an opportunity for professional development for me.”

The initiative was initially funded in part by UT’s Division of Diversity and Engagement and Office of Community Engagement and Outreach. This summer, the center was awarded a grant from the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, of which UT is a member institution, to lead a research project to learn more about Knoxville’s center-city schools and their culture in order to better serve the students. Benson’s team has been able to connect with more than 200 students at Austin-East, Central and Fulton High Schools, where they rotate tutoring every week.

Darius Jackson, a senior at Austin-East, works on his scholarship applications.
Jackson works on scholarship applications during a recent visit with students and staff from the Herbert Writing Center

Darius Jackson, a senior at Austin-East, learned about the tutors through the school’s Project GRAD advisor. He is passionate about working with them because UT is his first choice of schools.

“My college essay is about how I never gave up throughout the years when my mom passed away and how me pushing myself and not giving up has helped me become the best student I can be,” said Jackson.

Through his tutoring, Jackson learned about UT Promise and other scholarship opportunities and was able to complete his admission applications ahead of the December deadlines.

UT has invested in a year-round presence at Austin-East through high school visits, college fairs and information sessions. The university’s undergraduate admissions office works with the school staff to educate and support students and families through the process of applying to UT and completing their financial aid application, confirmation and enrollment.

The partnership with the writing center is one of many examples of UT’s commitment to expanding access to a college education to students at Austin-East and across Tennessee.

Earning College Credit as Community Leaders

Project Excellence—named by the first class of Austin-East students to participate—is an initiative in UT’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. It was the idea of Kimberly R. Hill, an Austin-East graduate and director of the program, who wanted to give high school juniors and seniors an opportunity to earn college credit while building on their existing leadership skills.

“Many of these students are on the Mayor’s Youth Council. Some have already begun to connect with our university’s leaders,” said Hill, who is supervising 14 students this year. “I don’t want a student to land on our campus and not feel like they belong. I want to ensure that every student understands that there is a place for them and a reason for them being here. I want to create pathways for these students whose college is literally in their backyard.”

Over the course of the program, students explore their leadership strengths, learn leadership concepts, and identify their personal values, vision and mission while pursuing their academic goals. Hill also spearheaded the creation of the Distinguished Community Leader Lecturer position, currently held by Daryl Arnold, founder and senior pastor of Overcoming Believers Church and a passionate Knoxville community leader.

“This program is like a passing of the torch to these students. To ensure their success, we want to make sure they know where to get help and support as a student. I can’t always fix whatever they’re going through, but I can assist them in finding someone who can help.”

Securing a Better Foundation

Since 2001, Knox County Schools has encouraged more than 7,000 students across 14 K-12 schools to pursue postsecondary education to secure a better foundation for their futures through Project GRAD. As part of the initiative, rising juniors from Fulton and Austin-East High Schools participate in one-week summer institutes at UT and Pellissippi State Community College.

“It is a phenomenal opportunity for the scholars that participate,” said Dorian McCoy, an associate professor, director of diversity, equity and inclusion in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. “They walk away knowing, ‘I can do this.’ They know that UT is a viable option for them.”

The residential precollege enrichment opportunity provides rising high school juniors an opportunity to live the college experience. At UT, students live on campus and take courses on college research, math and English and choose an academic track ranging from science, technology, engineering and mathematics to sport and recreation management.

Prepping for Success with New Culinary Program

UT Culinary Director Greg Eisele works with Austin-East students in the school’s culinary technical program.

UT Culinary Director Greg Eisele and his team began working this fall with students in Austin-East’s culinary technical program to help them learn the basics of cooking while building life skills.

Austin-East senior Morgan Hall and sophomore Jaden Mac both took the course out of an interest in learning to cook and an enthusiasm for eating. For a beef bourguignon presentation, Hall acted as sous chef to Eisele as he talked through each step. Mac assisted his team by chopping mushrooms for a side dish. While they both enjoyed the dish, Hall was most excited to learn how to make hamburgers, and Mac plans to make chocolate chip cookies for his family.

Expanding Access to UT

One of many ways UT serves students from across the state is the Flagship Scholarship program, which was created in 2005 and is part of the university’s larger Tri-Star Scholarship program. The Flagship Scholarship is offered to admitted first-time first-year students who graduate from one of the state’s 38 designated Flagship high schools, including Austin-East. Students attending Flagship schools can apply for admission to UT for free and receive a waiver of the enrollment deposit.

Combined with the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, the Flagship scholarship covers tuition and mandatory fees for up to eight semesters, which adds up to as much as $52,000 over four years and helps students graduate from UT with little or no debt. It is granted automatically to admitted first-year students who meet all criteria. Transfer students are also eligible.

The partnerships between UT and Flagship schools are reaping rewards. In the last four years, 32 Austin-East High School graduates have been admitted.

Nearly 90 percent of this year’s first-year Tennessee applicants were offered a pathway to attend UT. Almost a quarter of UT students are first-generation college students, and approximately 20 percent are eligible for federal Pell grants. About half of graduates leave UT free of student debt.

“The state’s flagship institution, UT has a mission to reach all Tennesseans, and our Flagship program is one way we accomplish that goal,” said Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small. “This transformative partnership creates an accessible pathway for these emerging scholars to obtain a college degree and become well-prepared to join the workforce. With Austin-East being a Flagship high school, it’s important we continue this work and build upon our existing partnerships with this high school.”


Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375,