Thongbai talking with a colleague in Human Resources.

Finding Home and Community on Rocky Top

Looking for connection and community at UT, first-generation college student Abigail Thongbai discovers a passion for volunteering and launches a career helping others.

When Abby Thongbai arrived on Rocky Top at the end of 2020, she longed for community that reminded her of home. For the first-generation college student, who grew up in rural Sylvester, Georgia, transferring to UT was a big transition.

Thongbai’s father, Ted, had immigrated to the US from Thailand at 19 with few resources and little knowledge of the English language. He worked during the day and took English courses at night—a work ethic that made an imprint on her. “It’s really been instilled in me that you don’t do it alone,” she explains. “It’s teams. It’s finding community. It’s finding a family.”

At the end of this semester Thongbai is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and she plans to remain in the Volunteer community.

Connecting through American Sign Language

One of Thongbai’s first discoveries of the community she craved stemmed from a skill she gained in childhood. Her mother, Suzanne, had become hard of hearing while giving birth to her. In anticipation of potential full hearing loss, Suzanne enrolled both her daughters in American Sign Language courses.

When Thongbai learned she needed to take two intermediate-level foreign language courses to fulfill a general education requirement at UT, she began to investigate ASL course offerings. The university had recently added ASL to a list of courses that would fulfill the requirement.

She began volunteering at Knoxville Center of the Deaf as part of her coursework. At her first volunteer event there, she connected with an elderly woman who guided her and helped her bridge the gap between her classroom knowledge and real-world usage of sign language.

“For the next four weeks I was done with my deaf events, but I kept going because I wanted that community,” she says. “I thrived trying to sign with them because I was actively learning. It was something that I enjoyed and something that was helping my skill.”

Thongbai’s time spent in the classroom and with the Deaf community in Knoxville was a true catalyst in finding her place as a Volunteer.

She challenged herself, saying “If I can build a connection and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language, I can go to school and meet people.”

Connecting with Diverse Communities

Although Thongbai had found connection within the city, she struggled to find a sense of belonging on campus. That changed on a hot summer day at the beginning of the fall semester in 2021.

Thongbai was walking uphill to her next class but needed a break. She scanned the benches in view and realized they were all occupied. Nervously, she asked Valentina Gómez if she could share a bench. With this small, seemingly unimportant interaction, a lasting friendship and a world of new opportunities were opened up to her.

“Just that one conversation on the bench—we were like, you know, let’s swap information,” says Thongbai. “We followed each other on Instagram, we made a time for us to go get coffee or food together, she taught me a lot and I taught her a lot just in that short amount of time. She was teaching me her culture, and I was teaching her my Americanized Thai-American culture and we really just hit it off.”

Gómez, an international student from Santiago, Chile, who’s now a senior in UT’s Journalism and Electronic Media program, introduced Thongbai to international communities on campus such as the Latin American Student Organization and the Asian American Association, and to the staff and students at the International House. Thongbai says, “They took me in. Just like everyone else did.”

Meeting Gómez and being introduced to these new communities gave Thongbai a drive to connect with the UT campus and sparked a new energy in her academic life. She began speaking up in class more than before and was intentional about getting to know classmates. She began to realize that she was an extrovert that had been yearning for a community to call home.

All Roads Lead Back…to Rocky Top

Thongbai lives by a mantra: “I’m in the service of helping people because we are humans, and we will fail eventually. That means someone needs to be in your corner when you do.”

She developed an interest in human resources after taking a psychology of the workplace course led by Bob DuBois, associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology. DuBois praised Thongbai for her ability to take her learning beyond the classroom, saying, “She makes connections between her academic and nonacademic activities that help her get the most of her learning at UT.”

Following the course, Thongbai set up a meeting with her academic advisor to discuss the newfound passion and was challenged to find an internship so she could gain real-world experience in the field.

Thongbai completed HR internships at Anakeesta, an outdoor adventure theme park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and with Vol Dining on campus.

“I learned a lot. I witnessed a lot. They gave me so many skills that I didn’t know I needed, which also meant growing my confidence in myself. They gave me that opportunity,” Thongbai says.

Shortly after completing her internships, she took yet another step outside her comfort zone at a campus job fair.

She told a friend, “UT HR is here. I applied for one of their jobs.”

“My friend said, ‘Go talk to them.’ I was like ‘Are you crazy? They don’t know me. I’m a student.’ And my friend said, ‘You’re graduating, you need a job—go talk to them.’”

She approached the table and after speaking with the recruiter was encouraged to apply for the position of recruitment specialist with UT’s Career Gateway program, which matches a pool of candidates with open opportunities at various colleges, departments, and offices at UT.

Thongbai says her career goal is “to help people find their best person they can be so they can thrive in the workplace.” That idea resonated with the UT HR team and, after interviews for the position, they were certain she was perfect for the role. The Monday following commencement, Thongbai will be on campus in her new role with the UT Human Resources team.

“I don’t think any other university could have done what UT did, because there are so many supportive people here,” she says. “Our staff and faculty have really gone the extra mile to make sure that, as a student, I had the resources I needed, and they helped me find the community I needed.

“I want to be that person advocating for the one who doesn’t have one. As a recruiter, I am advocating for the people that maybe their resume doesn’t look great, maybe their application is missing something. I’m going to help them.”

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