Photo by Dewayne Bingham.
By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—
At halftime during the Saturday football game between the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Western Kentucky University, Collin Cantrell and Mashara Miller were revealed to be UTC’s 2020 homecoming king and queen.
The announcement went out over social media, with a video featuring last year’s homecoming royalty, Yancy Freeman Jr. and Dominique Malone, introducing the winners.
For Homecoming 2019, the king and queen were announced with fanfare at McKenzie Arena during UTC’s usual homecoming home game. As one might expect, the event drew crowds composed of individuals from different corners of the wider UTC community, all of whom interacted and connected in the shared space.
Things look different in 2020. The football game took place outside of Chattanooga, and attendance was highly regulated. Many of the year’s Homecoming Week events had to be altered or changed completely in compliance with CDC guidelines.
Homecoming has always been a time for members of the UTC community to come together and bond over their shared enthusiasm for the university. That goal still remains in 2020, but the road to student engagement and connection has become perilous, and requires careful navigation.
Who better to lead that charge than some of the best exemplars of Moc spirit that UTC has to offer? The homecoming king and queen are meant to represent seniors who have demonstrated stand-out academic ability, but more importantly, the titles are given to individuals who reinforce and redefine what it means to be a Moc.
Originally hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, Mashara Miller transferred from Murray State University as a junior in 2018. In just three semesters, she established herself as a notable social and academic force on campus.
“Instantly, when I came to UTC, I had the people from the DSA and the NAACP reaching out to me,” Miller said. “There are so many leadership opportunities here, and opportunities to get involved. I was able to become an RA my second semester here. So I think the sense of home and belonging here at UTC is a huge difference from my other school. It’s honestly what has brought me here and what has kept me here.”
At UTC, Miller acts as president of the Black Student Alliance, vice president of the NAACP and a general advocate for all things diversity and inclusion.
Despite the prestigious titles, Miller doesn’t flaunt her achievements.
“I’ve always been the shy person in the background,” she said. “I always liked campus involvement, but I was just satisfied with being the person doing work behind the scenes.”
Now that Miller is under the spotlight, she said it is humbling to represent the student body so publicly.
“Honestly, I’m still in awe about it,” she said.
After originally setting her sights on becoming a nurse, Miller switched her major to social work. In the future, she sees herself bridging the gap between medicine and social resources.
“Until you have somebody who is able to connect you with a social worker to get those resources, you won’t have them,” Miller said.
This desire to connect extends beyond Miller’s professional ambitions, and can be seen in her push for students to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the university.
“There are so many opportunities on campus,” she said. “I want to be able to help people connect them to the resources that a lot of people don’t know about.”
For Collin Cantrell, sleepwalking his way through UTC was never an option. As vice president of the SGA and a leader in his fraternity, he’s no slouch when it comes to campus involvement. Since his freshman year, he has sought to expand his reach and positively influence everyone he encounters.
“While we are here to get a degree, I think UTC does a wonderful job of offering more than just going to class, going to your residence hall, going to eat food—there’s so much more to do than just those bare minimum things,” he said.
From an early age, Cantrell took an interest in athletics. This led to his involvement in various sports over the years. At UTC, with a major in health and physical education, he is taking this lifelong passion in an academic direction.
“I’m a physical education major, so I want to be a physical education teacher,” he said. “But I also want to coach baseball. Sports have always been a large part of my life. So I just want to be that example that my coaches were for me. I want to be an example for someone else one day.”
Cantrell is a self-professed people person, and said that he has always wanted to make others feel like they belong on campus.
“I would just really encourage everyone, kind of like I have, just to get your foot in just about every door you can, because these four years of college are the best times of your life, and there’s no reason to not have fun while doing it,” he said.
With more barriers to engagement than ever, Miller and Cantrell both emphasized that it will take extra effort for new students to find their path this year. Miller said that something as simple as replying to an email or interacting with a campus organization on social media can be all a student needs to get their foot in the door when face-to-face is not an option
For a semester in which the closeness that students feel might be less physical compared to previous years, the current homecoming king and queen face new challenges. As student leaders, they set the standard for what engagement looks like, but the status quo is shifting in 2020.
The idea of the “college experience” goes beyond academics. That elusive ideal would see the average student exposed to a constant stream of new ideas, new experiences and new people, but there is also a negative side to exposure that the world has come to know all too well.
In the months since COVID-19 engulfed the globe, people have had time to devise creative solutions to their social isolation. With the help of technology, many campuses have been able to keep education alive. UTC has come to find its own unique balance between online and in-person when it comes to academics, but also community.
Homecoming Week 2020 presents a good case study for what a successful adaptation looks like for a community event. In a similar way, students can look to the homecoming king and the homecoming queen as role models for making the most out of a strange situation.