More than 5,250 graduates will walk across the stage this weekend and join the ranks of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's alumni.
It would be impossible to sum up the pandemic-marred college experience of the class of 2022 or their future plans.
We spoke to four graduating UT students to get a sense of what they loved and what they're ready to leave behind from their college experience and the city of Knoxville.
We also asked them what's next, and why they are — or aren't — staying in the Scruffy City that's desperate to grow its pool of college-educated workers.
Knoxville's lack of college-educated workers is drying up the workforce pool and makes it difficult for Knoxville businesses to grow, data shows.
Choosing University of Tennessee
For Simon Jolly and Aruha Khan, UT has been in their backyard their whole lives.
"I was born on Cumberland Avenue, I went to elementary school on Lake Avenue and now I'm at UT," Jolly said. "This quarter-mile is pretty familiar to me."
Growing up so close to the university presented new challenges for the two Knoxville natives: They both kind of felt like they knew what UT was about before they got there. Khan went to L&N STEM Academy for high school and was on campus all the time to use the library.
"I never was really sure about whether I wanted to go to UT just because of how much exposure I'd had to it," Khan said.
But as Khan and Jolly got more involved on campus, UT started to feel less like the big college in their backyard and more like a place they could make their own.
For Jolly, his VOLbreak through the Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service changed everything. The community service trip program embeds students in communities and short-term service projects during a fall, winter or spring break.
"I really think that trip kind of showed me this is what finding your community at UT can look like and showed me what the student life involvement side of my campus experience could turn into," Jolly said.
For Savannah Hall, coming to UT was a bit more of a travel commitment. The Memphis business administration major decided to branch out from her small high school and take advantage of UT's size.
"UT had a lot to offer that I had never seen because of being a big school," Hall said.
It was a risk, but Hall felt prepared.
But no one could prepare the four students for a global pandemic to upend their college experience.
Navigating the COVID pandemic
When Hall's mom warned her in February she might have to come home soon because of COVID-19, she didn't believe her.
"I was like, 'You're lying. This isn't gonna happen.' Hall said, saying she was almost wishing she would get to go home because she was so stressed at school. "Fast forward two or three weeks later, and I was home."
She went from spending most of her time on campus bouncing between organization meetings to hundreds of Zoom meetings and campaigning for Student Government Elections via text messages.
"SGA campaigning online is super weird. I was pretty much texting and (direct messaging) all these people and not actually getting to talk to them about policy," Hall said.
And Jolly, who served as SGA executive treasurer this year, said the pandemic took a toll on engagement even as students were allowed to return to campus and meet in person.
"We're not at pre-COVID engagement on campus at all," Jolly said.
Meanwhile, Bill Blankenship wasn't just figuring out how to stay safe during a pandemic but also how to do his new job. He took on a co-op job with Fresenius Medical Care, a dialysis product manufacturer in Knoxville, where he often worked solo in the research and development department.
"I remember at first it was a little daunting. ... But I feel like it really helped me gain those independent skills I've taken into future internships. It has really been valuable," Blankenship said.
Khan was trying to figure out the best way to recruit people for her student organization, Student Advocates for Medicine in Politics, which hopes to accelerate medical equality by mobilizing local communities with education and outreach.
"It was really difficult to start the organization because of the marketing aspect and getting students recruited," Khan said. "At UT, there's so many different pre-health organizations, so it was hard to get students to (see) what's different about this one. ... I think after students saw kind of the changes that we're hoping to motivate in pre-health professionals, they were kind of like gravitating towards the organization more and more."
The organization, now a registered nonprofit, is helping keep Khan tied to the city she grew up in, even as she plans to move away.
Loving, or leaving, Knoxville
Khan is staying in Knoxville — for now.
The biological sciences and finance major will be the lead medical assistant and clinical researcher at Genesis, a neuroscience clinic that supports patients with Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and other cognitive concerns.
It's a perfect — but temporary — position for Khan, who's hoping to pursue her MD/MBA at Emory University in Atlanta. She's in the application process right now.
"I decided to stay here and also just be with my family for one more year," Khan said. "Since there's not an MD/MBA program here in Knoxville, I know I'm going to have to leave."
But Bill Blankenship is ready to start a new adventure. He'll be working at Smith & Nephew, a medical equipment manufacturing company, at its plant in Memphis.
"I really want to work in some kind of medical device field, just because I've always wanted to do use my degree for something that I felt like was impacting other people," Blankenship said.
Hall, however, is continuing her path in Knoxville. She's staying at UT for law school in the fall.
"Ultimately, it came down to where I want to live afterward: Tennessee. I don't plan on moving anywhere else, at least not long term," Hall said.
Jolly, who is in Knoxville over the summer virtually interning for the geographic information system software supplier Esri, says that he plans to leave Knoxville after the summer.
"I think what keeps people from staying (in Knoxville) is there's not flagship, top businesses for many different sectors. We've got Discovery, Tombras and a couple other businesses, but they don't have the same allure or appeal as some bigger brands."
But he isn't ruling out moving back to the Scruffy City completely.
"I definitely like see living in Knoxville as a part of my future in some way. I don't know exactly what that will look like," Jolly said. "But I think what would bring me back is Knoxville in 10 years is it's going to look just wholly different than it does today if there's more business and stuff happening here."
Becca Wright: Higher education reporter at Knox News
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Why University of Tennessee grads are - or aren't - staying in Knoxville