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Finding Your People on Rocky Top

A tradition since 2001, Ignite introduces first-year students to Knoxville while building friendships they’ll carry throughout their time at UT and beyond.

August 15, 2016 | Updated: March 18, 2021

Every summer for nearly two decades, incoming first-year students have had the opportunity to start their time at UT in true Volunteer spirit through Ignite, the university’s extended orientation program.

Hosted by UT’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service, Ignite consists of four experiences that help students make new friends, connect with student mentors, build leadership skills, and learn more about Knoxville and life on campus:

  • Ignite Knox, a four-day experience that introduces students to Knoxville through cultural, outdoor, and service opportunities
  • Ignite Serves, a four-day experience for up to 500 students who share team-building and leadership exercises, learn UT traditions, participate in social events, and are partnered with a Knoxville service organization
  • Ignite Leadership Summit, a three-day event, hosted off campus, that provides an introduction to the Volunteer community and includes a challenge course, a UT traditions tournament, and leadership workshops
  • Ignite Outdoors, a five-day wilderness trip, organized with UT Outdoor Pursuits staff, that includes training in navigation, wilderness first aid, group dynamics, and other skills areas helpful to coping with new challenges

“My sister was a student here and convinced me to sign up,” says Viet Quach, who graduated in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. “I didn’t know any better. It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Quach grew up in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Many of his high school classmates had also decided to attend UT. Wanting to get out of his comfort zone, he used Ignite Serves as a way to meet new people before officially moving onto campus. On his trip, he learned about the transition to life as a college student and volunteered to sort out donations for Knox Area Rescue Ministries and do yard work for Muse, a children’s science museum in East Knoxville.

“I spent four days with people who three-and-a-half years later are still my friends,” Quach says. “I wouldn’t have met any of these people if it weren’t for Ignite.”

While a staff coordinator organizes Ignite, each experience is facilitated by team leaders—sophomore and upper-level students, many of whom participated as first-years. Approximately 60 team leaders are chosen each year and trained to lead future programs.

“I’m somebody who doesn’t make friends easily,” says Kennadi Hawkins, a junior from Nashville who is majoring in kinesiology. Hawkins, who participated in Ignite Leadership Summit, has been a team leader and is now student director for Ignite Knox.

“Ignite helped me become more comfortable in a space where my parents weren’t there; the adult in my life was me,” Hawkins says.

As part of the different programs, students get an in-depth tour of campus. There are scavenger hunts to familiarize themselves with the place where they’ll spend the next four years of their lives, and they learn about UT traditions like “Rocky Top” and the Volunteer Creed. Ignite Knox includes a city tour with stops at various small businesses and cultural sites in the Old City and Market Square districts and time at the East Tennessee History Museum and the Knoxville Museum of Art.

One of the most meaningful parts of the Ignite experiences is the conversation that emerges from the various icebreakers and teambuilding exercises. In one activity, Cross the Line, students take steps toward a line in the middle of the room in response to a series of statements that range from lighthearted (“If you’re wearing a black T-shirt…”) to more serious (“If you grew up in a home without a computer or books…” and “If you’ve ever felt discriminated against…”).

“It’s a really good visual representation of what people have in common with you,” Hawkins says. “You realize all the different identities present. And it opens you up to talk about diversity, navigating different cultures, and to do it all with grace.”

For students like Hawkins and Quach, the biggest takeaways are the messages of unity and community.

“Ignite presses the idea it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background is, you’re now a part of the University of Tennessee,” Quach says. “We’re Volunteers. We’re one community.”

Registration for Ignite opens in March and spots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Produced by The Office of Communications and Marketing

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