What Got Them Through

By Jackie Wise | Illustrations by Nono Flores

The college journey shapes individuals in ways they may not fully grasp until years later. The campuses within the University of Tennessee System have served as a residence for growth and learning for countless alumni. As the alumni share their stories, a common thread emerges—the crucial role of support.

In the early ’70s, Jerry Estes (Knoxville ’73, ’76) found solace and support within the Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR) fraternity at the Knoxville campus. AGR surrounded him with individuals who supported him academically and helped develop his leadership skills. In addition, Jack Wheeler (Knoxville ’60, ’68), an attorney and fellow AGR, helped him secure a law clerkship, which exposed him to the practice of law and aided him in paying his tuition.

“AGR made me a better man,” he says. “Without it, I would never have been selected as a Torchbearer nor would I have made the lifelong friends I still enjoy today.”

Illustration of Jerry Estes
Jerry Estes
Illustration of Chris Pabon
Chris Pabon

Fast forward to the ’90s, and Chris Pabon (Knoxville ’94) echoes a similar sentiment. As a member of the UTK College Democrats, he discovered a trusted network of friends who shared his concerns and became the support group he never knew he needed. The College Democrats laid the foundation for his successful career in fundraising for nonprofits. As the organization’s treasurer, Pabon helped to raise funds, which meant getting to know people while convincing them to pay $5 to join.

“It allowed me to expand my network of friends and to test the waters for what became my professional career: raising money from individuals,” Pabon says.

Sarah Luna’s (Southern ’05) college experience at UT Southern, formerly Martin Methodist College, revolved around the choir—a ready-made family that sang, traveled and worshiped together. The diversity within this group broadened her horizons even as she learned more about other cultures while traveling around the country and the world. The bonds she formed made her collegiate experience meaningful and memorable.

Illustration of Sarah Luna
Sarah Luna
Illustration of Ivie Burns
Ivie Burns

Membership in Sigma Chi fraternity helped Ivie Burns (Knoxville ’91) during his time at UT Knoxville. His fraternity fostered a sense of community and kept him engaged in campus life, while creating lasting memories and relationships.

“Due to my positive experiences, I look back on. my days at UTK with great happiness and memories,” he says.

Finding her lifeline through membership in Delta Gamma sorority and as a little sister to AGR fraternity, Terry Smith (Knoxville ’80) found a home away from home. In them, Smith also learned discipline and leadership skills, which would be a key to her success and growth in college. Meeting her future husband, Donnie Smith (Knoxville ’80), added another transformative layer to her collegiate years.

Illustration of Donnie and Terry Smith
Donnie & Terry Smith
Illustration of Larry Murphy
Larry Murphy

The time Larry Murphy (Knoxville ’86, ’14) spent with the Pride of the Southland Band sent him on a trajectory that has influenced his life as an alumnus. Murphy enrolled in the concert band and joined the pep bands, which led him to traveling to bowl games, playing in former President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural parade and watching the Lady Vols basketball team win its first national championship. Now, Murphy serves as the president of the UT Knoxville Band Alumni Council and says his experience in the Pride and under the leadership of then-Director of Bands WJ Julian prepared him for the future.

“I give Dr. Julian so much credit to who I am today through his teaching and leadership,” Murphy says. “He is the one person that I can say had a huge impact on my life.”

Reysheid Mata (Knoxville ’08) was on the brink of transferring before joining the UT Knoxville rugby football club. This club became his social network and provided structure, accountability and discipline. His teammates became roommates, a support system. Those friendships remain an integral part of his life.

Illustration of Reysheid Mata
Reysheid Mata
Illustration of Mike Moss
Mike Moss

Sometimes, support can be found in unexpected places—such as the university catalog. For Mike Moss (Martin ’63), the catalog served as his guide, outlining the courses needed for his chosen degree in secondary education, and provided an easy-to-follow path towards graduation. Following the catalog’s recommendations, Moss graduated and embarked on a 40-year career in public education.

Ramon Gonzalez (Knoxville ’95) found his niche in the electric-vehicle challenge during his senior year. This hands-on project solidified his passion for engineering, emphasizing its real-world value.

“This project gave me a mission and also an escape from all the classwork and work outside of school, plus it connected me with other students from other engineering disciplines,” he says.

The challenge made practical use of the classroom knowledge. The team built a car the members took to Michigan for the competition. Gonzalez called the experience an amazing adventure.

Illustration of Ramon Gonzalez
Ramon Gonzalez
Illustration of Emma Drum
Emma Drum

For Emma Drum (Knoxville ’22), the Engineering Professional Practice office played a pivotal role in her collegiate journey. This office facilitated internships and co-op experiences, connecting students with over 150 companies. Drum’s participation in the Engineering Expo as a freshman allowed her to explore various industries, leading to internships and ultimately a full-time role with Duke Energy. The Professional Practice office also provided her with leadership opportunities to help other students succeed.

“I’m very grateful for my experience with the office, and it really allowed me to light the way for other students,” she says.

Now an assistant professor of accounting at UT Knoxville, Justin Short (Knoxville, ’11, ’12, ’18) credits his meaningful college experience to being a resident assistant (RA) and working for University Housing.

“Being an RA made me more curious about people and made me appreciate the unfamiliar,” he says. “It made me value the human experience side of education and is honestly why I went into higher education.”

Illustration of Justin Short
Justin Short
Illustration of Jerry Adams
Jerry Adams

Through the leadership of UT Knoxville Director of Residence Life Jerry Adams, Short learned what a campus community can be. The experience provided him with a purpose—to help foster a healthy and respectful dorm experience and reduce isolation for student residents.

Working as a RA was also a life-changing experience for Aimee Watson (Knoxville ’98, ’00), who credits that role with providing her a family, stability and a sense of purpose. When Watson came to campus in the fall of 1994, her parents and three brothers had moved out of the country. For the first time, Watson found herself on her own. She looks back on her experience with fondness, and she’s unsure how she would have juggled life without being a RA.

Illustration of Aimee Watson
Aimee Watson
Illustration of Nathan Zipper
Nathan Zipper

Nathan Zipper (Knoxville ’07) attributes his college success to the UT Knoxville alumni and development staff, including Linda Davidson, Mary Holtman-Reed (Knoxville ’68), Steve Catlett (Knoxville ’85) and Brian Hardy. Their care for his well-being created a supportive environment that made Zipper’s college experience rich and rewarding.

“Their investment in me was remarkably impactful on my life as a student and ultimately my life as an alumnus,” Zipper says.