The Honor of Their Presence

The Honor of Their Presence

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective–for instance, praising outstanding high-school juniors for their academic achievements and urging them to go to college in Tennessee. And subtly suggesting they might take a look at UT.

The Williamson County UT alumni chapter did the first high-school “honors” banquet several years ago. As other chapters got wind of the idea, they began honors banquets of their own. Now Hamilton County, Knox County, and Madison County all entertain their best local high-school juniors, along with their parents, guidance counselors, and principals, at an annual banquet in the spring. Current UT students speak about their college experiences, and such high-profile UT representatives as President John Petersen and campus chancellors are on the program, as well.

Buddy Heins (Knoxville ’84), past president of the Knox County chapter, says his alumni group had “gotten tired of seeing the best kids go somewhere else.”

“We’re trying to do our part to keep the best and brightest here in Tennessee,” he says. “We realized from an economic-development standpoint what a very good asset was getting away from us.”

Keeping the best students in Tennessee for college has gotten easier thanks to the financial incentive of the Hope scholarships. The Hope awards pay a large part of tuition expenses at state schools.

The vital link that makes the banquets possible is the high-school guidance counselor. The counselors provide the names of the students who are roughly the top 5 percent of the junior class. Herb Hooper (Knoxville ’60, ’79), past president of the Hamilton County UT alumni chapter, says the schools have cooperated admirably. “The cooperation from the superintendent’s office, the counselors, and the principals has demonstrated how strongly they support the dinner.”

The Hamilton County chapter expected a crowd of about 500 this year, up from 325 when they did their first such event in 2004. “In my judgment, the honors dinner is the finest thing we as a chapter have sponsored,” Hooper says.

Amy Sheridan (Knoxville ’01, ’02), who chairs the Williamson County chapter’s banquet, says their efforts don’t go unnoticed, citing positive feedback from parents and administrators. “They say no other university puts the time or effort into an event like ours.”

She says the student speakers are more effective: “We try to find students with diverse backgrounds and interests in a number of areas both academically and socially. We’ve found the student speakers have the most impact on both parents and students.”

Heins concurs. “When a student talks about opportunities to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory or travel abroad, that gets people’s attention. And it doesn’t hurt to have an opportunity to hobnob with the [UT] president either.”

Sheridan’s Volunteer spirit motivates her to work hard on the annual event.

“I was born and raised in Knoxville, so my blood has been running orange for a long time. When I relocated to the Nashville area, the first thing I did was get involved in the alumni association. I started working on the honors dinner in Williamson County because I believe there is no better place to get an education than the University of Tennessee. Retaining the best and brightest students of our state keeps the university going strong.”