Lily Duncan sits at a desk as her kindergarten students work around her

Homegrown Talent

UT’s Class of 2023 grads are staying in Tennessee to fill high-impact jobs

After traveling to Africa to help provide villages with clean water, 2023 nursing graduate Savannah Eaton will begin her career as an oncology nurse at UT Medical Center.

Engineering graduate Sarah Godfrey, who has a summer internship at Arconic in Alcoa, Tennessee, hopes to land a job there or at Y-12 National Security Complex after completing her master’s degree. Similarly, Noah Sutherland, a social work graduate, jumped at the chance to turn his internship into a full-time job at Helen Ross McNabb Center’s Intensive Long-term Support program.

And Lily Duncan, completing her master’s degree through the PreK–3 Teacher Licensure program, wants to stay in the area to teach kindergarten.

These four students aren’t alone in wanting to use their skills―and Volunteer spirit―to fill jobs in high-impact fields in Tennessee and help keep the area’s research facilities and industries on the cutting edge.

UT’s Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration gathered information from 81 percent of 2022 bachelor’s degree graduates. Ninety percent of them had either found jobs within six months of graduation or opted to continue their education. Of those who provided details about their work, 60 percent stayed in Tennessee, and of those, 50 percent stayed in the Knoxville area.

For Eaton, Godfrey, Sutherland, and Duncan, wanting to stay local stems from several factors―positive experiences at UT, good employment opportunities, and the desire to remain close to family, friends, and university mentors.

Savannah Eaton, oncology nurse

Because of her father’s work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Eaton and her family traveled to 49 states and lived in five before landing in Johnson City, Tennessee.

But when it came to finding a job, Eaton wanted to stay in Knoxville.

“This is where I need to begin my career because of all of the support I’ll have around me,” she says.

Savannah Eaton, nurse, wearing black scrubs with an orange stethoscope draped over her shoulders

Eaton says many of her friends, some also nursing graduates, will be working locally. She also wants to stay close to her nursing mentors, as well as her friends at church.

While Eaton is confident in her choices, nursing wasn’t always her plan.

“My mom was a nurse, and she was a diehard Tennessee fan. So of course I swore I would never go to UT and I’d never be a nurse,” she says. But when Eaton visited campus, she knew UT was the right place for her.

“My dad always told me you can’t create passion. It is innate in you. I realized I had a burning fire to advocate for people, and nursing is the way I want to do that.”

Through the College of Nursing’s Academic Service-Learning program, Eaton conducted mental health screenings and assisted older adults in a low-income residential community. She participated in the college’s Belize International Clinical Experience Abroad, served as a nursing ambassador and a class representative in the Student Nurses Association, and was a peer mentor to three younger nursing students. She also helped the college’s annual Fund-A-Cause raise more than $60,000 to support future nursing students.

Before starting work at UTMC, Eaton will travel to the Congo, Kenya, and Uganda with a family friend who founded an agency that drills wells to provide clean drinking water to remote villages.

“My experience at the College of Nursing has taught me that nursing is so much more than a profession. It is a passion to embody in every aspect of life,” she says. “I am confident in my abilities to take the Volunteer spirit in every adventure I have.”

Sarah Godfrey, materials science engineer

For Godfrey, from Rocky Top, Tennessee, staying in East Tennessee is all about familia.

And by family, she means her mom, stepdad, and siblings but also her social and professional families, including friends she’s made through UT’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and professional contacts in local industries.

Sarah Godfrey standing outside with Neyland Stadium in the background

Godfrey, whose mother’s family is from Mexico, learned about engineering at UT summer camps geared to minority and female students, including MITES (Middle School Introduction to Engineering Systems), eVOL10 (Engineering VOLunteers for Tenth Graders), and HITES12 (High School Introduction to Engineering Systems for Twelfth Graders). As a sophomore at Anderson County High School, she attended the Introduce a Girl to Engineering event hosted by Y-12. And as a high school senior she discovered a passion for materials science at the Governor’s School for Science and Engineering, held at UT.

Godfrey joined UT’s chapter of SHPE as a first-year student. Serving as the organization’s conference director since her junior year, she’s led student trips to conferences in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Washington, DC.

“It has really been my familia,” she says. “These are the people I hang out with outside of classes.”

In addition to this summer’s internship at Arconic, where Godfrey will be testing aluminum alloys to make sure they are up to consumer standards, she has had internships at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12. She knows that the brainpower and technical resources those facilities offer to area industries make East Tennessee an ideal place to forge her career.

“Staying in this area is important to me,” she says. “I really want to be here to take care of my parents after they retire.”

Noah Sutherland, social worker

Sutherland, of Dalton, Georgia, transferred to UT after completing his first two years of social work studies at Dalton State College.

“I see Knoxville as a long-term place to live,” he says. “I love the smaller-big-city feeling, and I also like how many different mental health organizations exist here that offer me flexibility in my career.”

Noah Sutherland sits outside in Circle Park wearing a gray Tennessee polo

After graduating, he’ll juggle his current full-time position at the McNabb Center with UT’s online Master of Science in Social Work program and an internship at Middlepath, an intensive outpatient mental health program. His career goal is to go into private practice as a licensed social worker working with adolescents and young adults with substance abuse problems and mental health issues.

“It’s all about making the world a better place,” Sutherland says, adding that he has the support of his girlfriend, Molly Anne Kerr, who also transferred to UT from Dalton State College to study social work. She will also start the MSSW program in the summer and has similar career goals.

During Sutherland’s internship at the McNabb Center, he worked 18 hours a week helping residents―most with chronic and persistent mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities―learn social and life skills. Now as an employee he’s doing the same thing with increasing responsibilities.

“Since it’s residential, I get to spend a lot of time with the clients,” he says.

He helps them develop coping skills and deal with anxiety, and he teaches them everyday skills like how to use public transportation and how to talk with their doctors. He also arranges group sessions where residents can socialize around shared interests such as music.

Sutherland said one experience really stands out―and affirms his decision to pursue social work.

He noticed that one resident rarely spoke to anyone, and when he did it was only to respond to questions with a simple “yes” or “I’m good.”

Sutherland focused on engaging with the resident and including him in conversations.

“Now he says full sentences to me, and he’ll talk to me without me talking first.”

Lily Duncan, teacher

As a kindergartener at Grace Christian Academy, Duncan was so enamored with her teacher that she invited her to her birthday party.

As a third grader, Duncan proudly dressed up as her teacher for Halloween. So it’s not surprising that Duncan has become a teacher herself.

“People don’t realize how much teachers do,” she says. Aside from academics, “we are teaching kids life skills―how to develop social skills, how to have conversations with others, how to tie their shoes. It’s an all-encompassing role.”

A smiling Lily Duncan sits surrounded by smiling kindergartners

A Knoxville native, Duncan attended Pellissippi State Community College and then transferred to UT to complete her bachelor’s degree in child and family studies. She is now finishing her yearlong student teaching internship to receive her master’s degree and PreK–3 teaching license.

She hopes to find a teaching job in or around Knox County. Her mom, stepdad, siblings, and stepsiblings all live in the area. Her fiancé, Parker Forehand, a 2020 graduate of the Tickle College of Engineering, is a nuclear engineer at Y-12.

Duncan completed her student teaching in a kindergarten class at Farragut Primary School and a first-grade class at Ritta Elementary School in northeast Knoxville. She did pre-internship teaching at Green Magnet Academy.

“Every school I’ve been to has been an incredible learning experience,” she says.

Knowing the way she felt about her own elementary school teachers, Duncan understands the lasting impression teachers can have on their students.

“I know how difficult it is to be a teacher, especially in today’s times. I know it’s going to be hard, but I know I can do it,” she says.

And like Eaton, Godfrey, and Sutherland, she’s excited about launching her career in Tennessee.

“My heart is all there,” Duncan says. “I really want to make an impact, a difference.”

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