Sarah Catherine Richardson, director of student life, tells everyone who attends orientation that she is a professional worrier. Her entire job at UT Southern is to worry about every student’s well-being. Richardson turns it into an art form.
“I really believe in knowing names. I study throughout the summer so that I can cheer them on in games or holler across the green or check in outside the dining hall,” she says. “It’s my job to know them—their names, their stories, their goals—and when I get to show them that I remember and I care, it’s the best feeling out there.”
Richardson drives the point home at orientation to families and new students.
“I genuinely do worry about all 800 of them all the time: Are they getting enough sleep? Did he get his laptop fixed? How did her hard conversation go?”
All Hands on Deck
The students at UT Southern are predominantly first-generation students, the first person in their families to go to college. Being first-generation requires help to understand everything needed for the enrollment process.
Enter Sharon Higgins, an admissions counselor. She sees her job as a way to serve the community.
“Our entire region is enriched every time the students I work with graduate,” she says. “These students will be lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers. Our region needs professionals desperately.”
Higgins helps the first-generation students understand the vocabulary of credit hours, matriculation, financial-aid details and many other concepts. She cultivates a relationship with each applicant and stands ready to answer any questions. She even walks with nervous students to all their class locations before classes start so no student has to worry over finding the right room on that first day.
Answering the Big Questions
In July of 2021, Drew Holland (Knoxville ’04) became the program coordinator for religion and philosophy at UT Southern. His first task was to transform a department that was at the heart of a denominational school.
After Holland graduated from UT Knoxville, he worked as a banker. After a few years, he left his position to pursue a Master of Divinity and then a Ph.D. in biblical studies. He eventually found his way to the faculty of Martin Methodist College.
With this background in business, Holland sees why his department is still integral to the life of the now-public university.
“A minor or a major in religion and philosophy will teach you to ask and answer big questions,” he says. “That’s crucial in the business world, where you need to be able to think critically about your mission, analyze strategy and think about the big picture. Those are the skills we teach.”