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This spring, the University of Tennessee will support 64 undergraduate students across campus as part of the Departmental Research Assistantship (DRA) Program. This program is funded through a the Division of Student Success as part of the >Volunteer Experience and in alignment with UT’s Strategic Vision. During the spring semester, student employees in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and performing arts will earn $1,500 to aid faculty researchers in their major.

“The Volunteer Experience is transforming the undergraduate experience at UT, and the DRA Program is one element in that transformation giving our undergraduate students experiential learning opportunities that will benefit their long-term academic and professional goals,” Amber Williams, vice provost for Student Success, said. “The student-faculty relationship is the foundation of our Vols having a meaningful, influential experience here at UT that will make them graduates who are confident, resilient, and self-motivated.”

The DRA program is meant to remove financial barriers to engage students who are low-income and first generation with undergraduate research and enhance relationships with faculty and mentors. A partnership between the Division of Student Success, Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (URF), and departments across UT and UTIA, the program will also recognize faculty mentors and measure student demand for research opportunities and the supply of those opportunities on campus.

Response to the application was significant, as was the interest of the departments and faculty to engage in the program. Students have been awarded in 44 departments across all UT undergraduate colleges. At least 244 faculty were eager to work with a DRA student, and eight departments offered to fund additional DRA students to match URF funding.

“This semester’s award is the largest funding of semester-based, co-curricular undergraduate researchers in the university’s history,” Erin Darby, URF faculty director and associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, said. “We are excited at the opportunities this program will give students to discover undergraduate research and build more meaningful relationships with their faculty mentors.”

Students from the program will present their research during Discovery Day in fall 2022, and URF will work with Dr. Patrick Biddix, professor and associate director of the Postsecondary Education Research Center (PERC), and graduate students to design an assessment program for the inaugural DRA year.

As I reflect on the first semester of the UT Success Academy (UTSA), success would be an understatement! I am proud of the amount of progress we have accomplished and the relationships that have been built in such a short period. In four months, we were able to welcome 113 first-year students as members of the inaugural cohort and host the Fall Kick-Off extended orientation 10 days before the start of the fall semester as an introduction and connect students with upper-division peer coaches and other scholars in the program.

This fall, student scholars completed customized individual success plans detailing academic, social, and personal goals. These plans will be developed each semester and include goals for each course, setting dates to meet with their academic advisor and attend academic success workshops, and how they plan to use their strengths during the semester. Student scholars also attended monthly Link-Up events engaging in activities around servant leadership, social identity, and personal well-being. More informal programming included a professional dress etiquette workshop, the creation of a fantasy football league, and a video game tournament where students competed in NBA2K, FIFA, and Smash Bros.

People have asked what I enjoy most about being the program director, and it is tough to pinpoint one aspect of my job. There are moments when a student will run into the office excited about passing an exam or a project they are working on, when I feel like the friend or confidant needed at the time, or even small moments when everyone is asking for internship recommendation letters! If I had to choose, it would be walking into the room at an event and seeing the cohort all in one space connecting. Moments like these reinforce what this program is about. The UT Success Academy is here to ensure that student scholars understand their strengths and how they connect to their goals, provide a structure for support along the way, and build a community – a family – of people that are here to cheer them on through the finish line.

As the program director, I do not believe we could have asked for a better start to the UT Success Academy than the one we had this fall. The community and relationships developed over the past four months will last our student scholars a lifetime to come. I am extremely proud of this group and the work they have done this semester to become the best version of themselves.

I look forward to seeing what goals our student scholars want to accomplish for the spring and how we can support those goals. We will continue to create a space for our student scholars to develop relationships and celebrate our wins, big or small.

Aaron Dixon, UTSA Program Director

UT’s Torchbearer magazine interviewed UTSA Program Director Aaron Dixon in fall 2021 to highlight the academy’s inaugural semester and year. The entire article can be read here.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been selected as one of eight universities and colleges to receive a $25,000 grant as a member of the inaugural Promising Practice Accelerator for the American Talent Initiative 

The university has set a bold vision to enhance all students’ persistence and graduation rates, emphasizing low-income students and other special populations. “We’re honored to be chosen for this inaugural grant. This grant further allows us to transform the student experience and supports critical goals in the university’s strategic vision,” Amber Williams, vice provost for Student Success, said. “By challenging our students and developing the systems to support them, we believe our Volunteers will thrive.”  

This fall, the accelerator grant will allow UT to pilot a transformative experience for more than 100 low-income new Volunteers. UT will develop a customized summer bridge program, personalized academic support, and facilitate financial wellness resources and conversations by creating a comprehensive approach to student well-being and success. 

“We are excited for this opportunity to enhance the Volunteer experience for students on campus. The ATI initiative aligns well with UT’s access mission and will further help students achieve their educational goals,” Kari Alldredge, vice provost for the Division of Enrollment Management, said. “We are grateful to have been selected among seven other outstanding schools across the country and cannot wait to see how the grant-supported initiative positively impacts the lives of our students.” 

Bloomberg Philanthropies fund the grant. The other seven schools selected include Barnard College (New York, NY), Hope College (Holland, MI), Lebanon Valley College (Annville, PA), Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ), Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, NY), University of Dayton (Dayton, OH), and Wofford College (Spartanburg, SC). ATI facilitates research, practice-sharing, and communications campaigns around presidential leadership, access and affordability, community college transfer, student veteran engagement, and student success and equity in the academic experience. With this support, members can make measurable progress toward aspirational lower-income student enrollment goals and minimize equity-based graduation gaps by 2025. To learn more about ATI, visit

The Office of the Provost is moving forward with promoting the Volunteer Experience, as articulated in goal one of the Strategic Vision. This comprehensive, university-wide approach promotes student well-being inside and outside the classroom. One effort in that approach is establishing academic department Student Success Grants to support the integration of well-being pedagogy in priority, high-enrollment courses.

The first grant awarded in fall 2021 supports the Division of Biology’s Biology Booster Shot project, submitted on behalf of co-applicants, Professor Randall Small and Lecturer Caroline Wienhold. “The Provost’s Office is excited to support the Division of Biology and this effort that will engage with the Volunteer Experience by infusing well-being into the department’s classrooms to enhance student success,” Amber Williams, vice provost for Student Success, said. “This step is the first among many initiatives designed to create the conditions where every student scholar thrives. I’m grateful to the Biology faculty for their commitment to enhancing the undergraduate experience.”

The Biology Booster Shot is a three-pronged approach to improving student success in the 100-level introductory biology courses, specifically BIOL 150 and 160. The project, which is expected to take two years and will serve as a pilot project for future grants, will:

  • Enhance learner support programs in collaboration with the Academic Success Center
  • Refocus the learning objectives and pedagogical approaches in these courses
  • Create a culture of continuous reflection and innovation framed in well-being for faculty and staff

Faculty from BIOL 150 and 160 courses attended a two-day retreat Tuesday, January 11 and Wednesday, January 12 to focus on innovative methods of incorporating well-being and the grant’s outcomes into the classroom. Day one focused on the framework for infusing well-being strategies into the classroom. Faculty were able to share existing practices and brainstorm new ideas under each element of PERMA. Day two centered on equity-based teaching, best practices in policy and assessment, and idea generation, with Dr. Rachel Ellestad attending to share what faculty are doing in engineering fundamentals.

As part of grant, the Division of Biology is working with Teaching & Learning Innovation to develop sustainable professional development and curriculum review processes for faculty. Implementing enhanced ways to onboard and support new instructors will build community among our faculty and ensure ideas and momentum are built upon semester to semester, ultimately contributing to student success. “TLI is thrilled to be working with General Biology on this project,” Virginia Stormer, associate director in TLI, said. “What is so impressive about this group of faculty is how enthusiastic and invested they are in the success of their students. The retreat was a wonderful opportunity for the faculty to learn from each other and to generate ideas to create a consistent and supportive experience for all students in Biology 150 and 160 courses.”

“In our project, we are focusing on both students and faculty, because feeling supported, feeling part of a community, finding meaning in your efforts, and achieving, isn’t something only students need,”  Wienhold, also assistant director of Biology Teaching & Learning, said.

In addition, they are collaborating with the Academic Success Center to expand biology students’ tutoring options, namely creating a method for peer tutors to participate during class and form a team with the instructor. This work is meant to create a culture of students seeking academic support and making large classrooms feel more personable and smaller.

“We expect the team-based professional development and curriculum review processes and peer tutor program we develop in general biology courses will serve as a model for the upper-division biology courses and other large-enrollment or team-taught courses,” Small, also director of Biology Teaching & Learning, said.

Dr. Wienhold explained the importance of students’ success in biology, saying UT faculty want students to be informed citizens and critical consumers of data who understand the scientific process. Most of the 7,000 students enrolled annually in general biology are not biology majors and have different interests. “If we can help students find meaning in the content and connection through relationships with their peers, their tutors, and their instructors, we hope that will sustain their interest in biology and push these students to continue to learn and engage with science,” Wienhold said.

The Office of the Provost at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, invites inquiries, nominations, and applications for associate vice provost & executive director of Honors & Scholars Programs with the Division of Student Success. More information and links to the job posting are located with the search announcement.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was represented in “Reflections on Fall Campus Connections,” a feature by Inside Higher Ed. Vice Provost for Student Success Amber Williams discussed students’ transition to UT this fall and their well-being and strengths in response to mask mandates, the pandemic, and adjusting to a new hybrid academic experience.

The UT Success Academy (UTSA) was featured on on December 28, 2021. Writer Rebecca Wright highlighted the academy’s role in motivating and enhancing first-year Black and Latinx men’s transition to the University of Tennessee and the support of their well-being through the four-year cohort program.

Hey Vols! There are a lot of resources on campus to help you succeed during the Winter Mini-Term! Check out these tips that will help you ace your classes.

  1. Plan ahead! Start strong by using a planner or calendar to log all assignments, tests, class & lecture times, and study times for the full three weeks. 
  2. Attend class! For synchronous courses, add class times to your planner or calendar and don’t forget to factor in travel time, if needed.  For asynchronous courses, schedule a time to watch the lecture just as you would a synchronous course.  
  3. Communicate! If you are struggling with a concept or find yourself falling behind, talk to your professor or teaching assistant immediately and reach out to resources to get assistance with catching up. 
  4. Study smart! Use effective study methods to make the most of your time and maximize your learning.  With just three weeks to master course content, these methods are essential to your success. 
  5. Use resources! Attend study sessionswork with a coach, visit the Vol Study Center, and make use of resources across campus starting on day one. 

Patrick Akos, consultant to the University of Tennessee and professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, visited campus November 11-12 to meet with faculty and staff to discuss well-being, student success, and the Volunteer Experience.

While at UT, Akos met with campus leaders from the Office of the Provost, Teaching & Learning Innovation, College of Arts & Sciences, and College of Education, Health & Human Sciences. In addition, Dr. Akos hosted a campus-wide workshop to demonstrate the impact of well-being on students’ holistic success.

“The institutional commitment to student well-being is amazing,” Akos said. “From Provost Zomchick to academic departments to Teaching and Learning Innovation to the First-Year Programs team and the entire Division of Student Success – everyone is deeply committed to helping ALL students not only learn but also thrive.”

Professor Akos consults with UT’s Strengths Advisory Council, charged by Provost John Zomchick, to propose actionable items to support the Volunteer Experience as articulated in goal one of the Strategic Vision. His discussions and presentations focused on incorporating well-being into the undergraduate experience and understanding from a holistic perspective how students will thrive when their strengths and well-being are considered. This work will produce graduates who are self-motivated, resilient, confident, and driven by service.

“Dr. Akos understands how to develop deeper meaning in the work we do towards students’ academic success,” Amber Williams, vice provost for the Division of Student Success, said. “Our Volunteer community was better able to understand how our work will make a transformative difference in the lives of our Volunteers who want to succeed and make a meaningful difference in the world.”

The Office of the Provost is partnering with Teaching & Learning Innovation and the colleges to launch faculty-specific programs and initiatives to develop the Volunteer Experience across campus.


Lacey Wood (