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Joining the UT Family: How Ignite Sparked My College Journey

Written by Nicholas Ross (2019)

Major: Chemical Engineering

My plan for college was simple: get a degree and move on to other things. My mother, however, had other plans. The summer before I began UT, she heard about the Ignite program for incoming students. Ignite was an opportunity for new students to meet a group of their peers, get inspired about joining the Vol Family, and begin their personal development journey. Since I originally didn’t even want to come to UT, you can imagine that I wasn’t too interested, but my mom was insistent. In the end, I went to Ignite. Throughout the weekend, I learned about Tennessee’s traditions, met some of the campus’s most passionate student leaders, and talked with other incoming students about the hopes and fears we had about entering college. By the end of the weekend, I had begun to realize that coming to UT is about more than receiving an education. It’s about joining a family.

The impact of the experiences I had at Ignite was amplified during my time in the Chancellor’s Honors Program’s (CHP) Living and Learning Community in Fred Brown Hall. As a member of the honors community, I was surrounded by peers who were constantly striving to better themselves and engage the people around them in the process. The community in Fred Brown Hall encouraged me to pledge a fraternity, inspired me to become an Ignite Team Leader, and provided me with lifelong friends. In the honor’s community, I found myself among a diverse group of peers eager to engage in discussion on everything from molecular biology to the 2016 election. Through these discussions, I found my voice and recognized my responsibility to use that voice to be an active member of my community.

Another aspect of joining the CHP that helped broaden my view of college was the community service requirement. A true future engineer, I searched for the most efficient way to complete my 25 hours and decided to knock them out during an alternative spring break (ASB) trip. Little did I know, participating in ASB would serve as a catalyst for the paradigm shift that continues to shape my personal and professional life. While working with youth in Saint Louis, I saw the systemic educational inequality that keeps so many young Americans in the cycle of poverty. I became determined to use my platform as a student leader to be an advocate for social change. Upon returning to UT, I started an elementary outreach club and became an alternative break trip leader so I could educate my peers on issues surrounding youth development.

After participating in ASB, community engagement became central to my identity as a UT student. Even while completing a co-op in Cleveland, Tennessee, I commuted back and forth to campus to continue my involvement with student organizations. During these commutes, I realized that though I enjoyed the challenges of engineering I needed to find a way to bridge my love for problem solving with my passion for service. I took this knowledge into my honors advising appointment hoping to discover a way to create this bridge. In that appointment, I learned of two things that could help me reach my goal. The first was that UT offers a scholarship for students to serve as congressional intern in the summer. The second was that I still needed an intercultural experience to complete my Ready for the World requirement. As I began looking through study abroad options, I found a program perfectly suited to my needs. It would allow me to spend the first half of my summer as a congressional intern and the second half as a microfinance intern in Nakuru, Kenya.

Over the course of the summer I began to see how all of my experiences at UT coalesced. The Ignite and alternative break programs had shown me how individual identity and cultural diversity are integral to community resilience. My time as a fraternity president gave me the opportunity to practice inspiring people to pursue a common vision. My internships in D.C. and Kenya gave me direct experience with organizations using community based activism to fight for institutional change. I have learned that it is in these intimate communities that large scale change is born, and it is in these communities that I will spend my career. As I prepare myself for the next big step, I cannot help but appreciate the community that placed me on this path. The journey from a pessimistic incoming student to an inspired Volunteer would not have been possible if not for the mentors and friends I met as a CHP student. I am happy to know that no matter what challenges or successes I may find in my future, they will always be shared by my Volunteer family.