The Volunteer Spirit at Home in Appalachia

Volunteers bear the torch that lights the way for others. This passion to lead and serve is evident in the ways Vols roll up their sleeves and work to make our Appalachian home the best it can be.


 VolsTeach for Appalachia is working to put STEM teachers in classrooms in East Tennessee. The program, which is part of UT’s larger VolsTeach initiative, is funded by the National Science Foundation and focuses on making a pathway for community college students to become teachers. UT and Pellissippi State Community College have partnered with five school districts in East Tennessee to help address the shortage of math and science teachers in the region. The program offers financial support and access to internships, field experiences, and mentoring. In the next two years, the program hopes to place 32 new STEM teachers in classrooms.


“Opportunities to be healthy can differ based on where you live,” says College of Nursing Dean Victoria Niederhauser. “Our college’s vision of ‘leading care, creating partnerships, improving health’ is a simple statement, but it’s not simple to do in rural and underserved communities of Appalachia.” The college’s educators realize that bringing this vision to fruition requires both urban and rural areas to get involved in adopting community members’ suggestions and building collaborative relationships. These relationships have resulted in initiatives such as a workshop called Honoring Life’s Journey, which is teaching people in rural Scott County, Tennessee, about palliative and end-of-life care. The relationships built during the process also led to part-time pediatric care being available in Scott County, complete with diagnostic tools that were not locally available before. Read more about the college’s work in the Appalachian region at


Imagining Possibilities began as a five-year program called PiPES, funded by the National Institute of Health and the Science Education Partnership Award, aimed at providing information about college and careers in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medical science) to 10th- and 11th-grade students at several high schools in East Tennessee. The program has also offered a summer program at UT. Associate Professor of Educational Counseling and Psychology Melinda Gibbons, the co-primary investigator of the program, says Imagining Possibilities has extended its offerings to grades 9–12 at all of its partner high schools. “Many of the students we work with are from low-income families or would be the first in their family to attend college, and they may not have access to the same level of information about options after high school as their peers, yet they have the same talents, abilities, and interests,” says Gibbons. ASPIRE, another scholarship program helmed by Gibbons and co-primary investigator Erin Hardin, a professor of psychology, provides academically talented rural Appalachian UT students with a four-year scholarship of up to $9,375 a year. ASPIRE scholarship recipients have access to research experiences, ongoing mentoring, and the opportunity to connect with other Appalachian students at UT.

Trees and Hills.


Assistant Research Professor of Political Science Tim Ezzell is UT’s project leader of the Appalachian Leadership Institute, which he describes as a “leadership and economic development training program for people who live and/or work in Appalachia and are passionate about helping their communities thrive.” UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, Tuskegee University, and Collective Impact LLC partner to offer a nine-month program on behalf of the Appalachian Regional Commission. “Our goal is to create leaders that will not only help the region adapt to these changes but also will use these opportunities to create thriving, equitable, and sustainable communities. A small number of good leaders—people with skills and vision—can play a major role in transforming a community,” Ezzell says.

Trees and hills.


After seeing large gaps of information in her own genealogical research, graduate student Juniper Starr (’18) wanted to be involved in a project that would help preserve the history of others, in particular Black communities in Appalachia. Her work became part of the East Tennessee PBS digital series Black in Appalachia. As part of the project, which was Starr’s practicum for the School of Information Sciences (SIS), she focused on collecting and digitizing historical material in upper East Tennessee’s Greene County. The work has continued since that time with five other graduate students in the SIS program. ETPBS Director of Community Outreach William Isom II and his team are continuing to take the information provided by the work and creating documentaries for online and televised showings, as well as archiving physical records. Ericka Patillo, a SIS clinical assistant professor and practicum program director, says this program will continue to benefit students. “I think the most important thing is that SIS students have an opportunity to enact the information sciences skills and values we instill in support of a segment of our local and regional community that has been previously marginalized to tell and preserve their own stories,” she says. To find out more, visit and


In 2016 wildfires ravaged Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As rebuilding and healing began, UT Libraries stepped in to begin collecting and preserving the stories of those who were affected through an oral history project called Rising from the Ashes. Casey Kaufman, who manages the production and collection of the oral histories, said the initial objective was to ask people to relay their personal experiences of the traumatic fires, during which many people lost their homes and businesses. The project team realized that sharing details of such a harrowing experience on camera could be emotionally difficult or even impossible for some. “In sharing the goals of the project, our team made clear that our goal was to simply serve as facilitators for narrators to share their story in their own words, in the way they wanted it told,” Kaufman says. The team has collected more than 130 interviews to date, including many that were remotely recorded during the pandemic. Kaufman hopes this project can broaden public awareness of the plights of others through oral history and be a primary resource for future research. See the Rising from the Ashes project at

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1 comment

alyemen June 24, 2022 - 7:55 am

thank you the nice articl

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