Photo by Elizabeth O'Guin
By Lane Gutridge, Contributing Writer–
As a senior in high school, I began the process of applying for colleges. I wanted to be a nurse and was heavily involved in health science programs at my school and in the city. I had a very easy answer when people asked what I wanted to do with my life. Everything I had worked for the prior 4 years was setting me up for a successful career in nursing. I applied to 5 colleges with UTC being the bottom of the list. An admissions counselor from UTC had come to speak with my senior class and I really liked the sound of Chattanooga and the programs here, but was not completely sold yet. I was still attracted to the glamour of big schools and bright lights. Being from a small town like Maryville, TN, I wanted to venture out into a bigger city and to get away from the mountains I had grown up surrounded by. I watched as my top choices fell off one by one. I was actually pretty terrified about where I was going to start my future. I came on a campus tour with my friend in Spring of 2017. My parents were not able to come with me, so the impression was totally on me to report back to them about. I walked around and was shocked by what I was experiencing. I saw the beautiful chapel, the huge field full of students, the private bedrooms, and the Chick-Fil-A. I felt at home here immediately and knew this is where I needed to be.
I convinced my parents that UTC was the place for me and quickly set my sights on Chattanooga. I filled out the housing application and was excited to move into Walker Apartments. I began researching what I could decorate my room with and was so excited to move in. We signed up for Orientation, the first one actually, and me and my parents made plans to come visit UTC for the last time before I moved in. It sounds pretty lame to say, but I thrived at Orientation. The chants and music, the OLs, and the organization fair all had me seeing stars. I loved every minute of it. My parents really liked it, too, and this is where they first became excited for me to come to UTC just as much as I had been.
I moved in that Fall and spent a lot of time with my friends from high school. We had so much fun together in this new place, but I knew at some point I needed to branch out and find areas to explore on my own. I joined Freshman Senate and did not know a soul in the organization before I got there. I was pretty nervous about it, having never done anything with student government in high school. Nonetheless, I was excited to meet new people. Never did I imagine how impactful that year in Freshman Senate would be.
I don’t know if I played my cards right or just got lucky, but I met some really incredible people. Many of them upperclassmen, I quickly became friends with people in SGA as well as a lot of my fellow Freshman Senators. Before I knew it, I was the Treasurer of Freshman Senate. Now before you ask why a nursing student became Treasurer, know that I still don’t have a good answer for that. I know I did not really do a great job, but I had a lot of fun.
To my surprise, I was offered a position to run on an SGA Elections coalition with candidates who were running for SGA President, Vice President, and Treasurer. Honestly, I had no idea what elections were or how they worked, nor did I know anyone on the campaign prior. Nonetheless, I agreed to join and had the time of my life. I loved getting to post my candidacy on a coalition such as that, going to elections events, passing out buttons, and meeting so many new people. Thankfully, nearly all of our candidates for the coalition won. I was not sure what the next step was, but I definitely was not prepared for what the next year would bring.
I ended up joining the Executive team as the External Communications Director (ECD). In the beginning, I felt very overwhelmed and in over my head. I really didn’t know what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, but I took this time to get to know the other members of the team. The youngest on the team, I felt like the baby brother, a role I know all too well. We spent the year creating amazing memories. I can’t continue this section without recognizing them by name:
President, Jujuan Lewis
Vice President, Dominique Malone
Treasurer (Fall), Pooja Patel
Treasurer (Spring), Drew Reynolds
Secretary, Brittany Johnson
Parliamentarian, Tony Iorio
Marketing & Communications Director, Rachel McIntyre Smith
Freshman Senate President, Taylor Bradshaw
Freshman Senate Advisors, Simone Edwards and Caroline Waldron
Chief Justice, Wesley Bolton
They took me to meetings with campus administrators, guided me through SGA meetings, and helped me learn how to create programs and plan events. Through my experience as ECD, I found my passion for event planning and marketing. JJ also talked about the Gary W. Rollins College of Business constantly, so it was inevitable that I would end up switching majors, which I did. I am now a proud Marketing student, ready to advance my career in Event Planning.
One day, JJ pulled me into our office and really encouraged me to be proud of the accomplishments we had made and told me the growth and potential he saw in me. He ended by telling me that he believed I would be a great successor to him and should run for SGA President. I quickly informed him that I did not have enough credit hours, which we laughed about. But this encouragement stuck with me.
Some of my greatest memories are struggling to study for Anatomy with Pooja, playing ping pong each day with Drew, watching Big Brother with Dom, wrestling with JJ, talking about politics with Tony, and laughing until I cried with Rachel. These people meant a lot to me and I am so thankful to have had so many great friends spend their time pouring into a young kid who was way in over his head. Without them, I truly don’t know that I could have had the courage and skills to accomplish all that I have. Eventually, this year ended, some of my friends graduated, but my friendships with most have carried on.
That Spring, I was once again asked to run on a Top 3 coalition in SGA Elections, which I could not possibly turn down. We ran on the largest campaign in UTC history (at the time) and broke the record for highest voter turnout. It was a fun campaign and this is when I learned a lot about how to run an effective and successful campaign.
That year, I served as the Freshman Senate Advisor, along with Dominique Malone in the Fall and Collin Cantrell during the Spring. It was an amazing experience getting to pour into new students who were in the exact same seat that I had occupied not long before. It was an absolute blessing to get to fill this role and have the experience with two of my greatest friends, too.
During that year, I had been working on getting my own campaign together, with hopes of becoming SGA President. My coalition’s name was Connect UTC. Our goal was to come together as students and provide the resources necessary to encourage other students to connect to the UTC community. I was fortunate enough to have so many friends ready to run in elections and support me as members of the campaign. We were received warmly by the campus community. It was a great time getting to know more students and share this experience with so many others. During the campaign, I remembered how the upperclassmen before me had taken the time to guide me through the process, so I tried my best to do the same for my team, too. I really had the best time during those two weeks. We obviously won, but were in no way ready for what the year would entail.
The week after we won, we all went on Spring Break where we were informed that a new pandemic, COVID, had shut down the University. No one expected this obviously and it was difficult to step into leadership during such an unprecedented time. I began my term as President serving on the University’s COVID Taskforce. I have never felt more unequipped and unqualified to make decisions and be a part of the conversation in my life. How was I, a 22 year-old college student, supposed to help make decisions about how to function during a worldwide pandemic for an entire University of faculty, staff and students? I shared these insecurities with a staff member, Laura Cagle, who I had made a great friendship with working together the prior summer. She shared with me that no one on the call knew anymore than I did about what to do. None of us had experienced this and no one knew exactly what to do. She also told me that my voice was crucial. These people needed to hear from students and to be reminded that we are a campus who functions for our students. “Students First” is a motto you can find posted in many places around UTC. With this in mind, I began speaking up in front of campus staff, faculty, administrators, and executives. To my surprise, they listened. I mean I knew they would hear me, but I was not expecting them to take what I said seriously. But they did. I developed very many great connections with those colleagues, and I began seeing them as that, colleagues and friends.
Over the last year, we have continued to work together to make this campus a safe place where students can still achieve academic success and be engaged with each other. I have had the great opportunities to advocate for and support other student leaders and organizations as we have all worked together to make sure that students know that they matter and have a place where they feel like they belong at UTC.
It has been a tough year, but I am so proud of the work we have done together and the success we have achieved. It can be difficult sometimes to see my own success as President when I compare it to the experiences I have seen before, but I have had to remind myself that this experience is unique to me and I have has some of the most formative experiences of my life through these struggles. I am very fortunate to have gotten to serve with so many incredible friends this year. There’s something about being able to develop personal relationships with the people you serve with, too. I’ve found this to be a great way to make the most out of hard times and really dive deeper through the experiences that connect you together.
One thing I am proud of is that UTC never stopped engaging with students. Events and organizations never stopped. We continued to press on and overcome obstacles to be there for each other and create a community bonded together.
My time as SGA President looked nothing like I had expected, anticipated, or hoped for, but I am so thankful for that, too. I believe I grew a lot this year. I learned a lot about leadership, service, sacrifice, friendships, and about myself, too. I am thankful that I had to overcome a challenge where there was no prior experience to reference or no one to consult who could give me definite answers. I thrive on experience and preparedness, but with those two resources stripped away, I had to be innovative, creative, and ready to take risks.
It was a great year and I am so thankful for SGA and all that I have experienced here. I leave behind a great legacy of leadership and servitude that I am confident will continue. The memories I have made and the people who have been a part of them will stick with me forever. Because of SGA, I am ready to step out of my comfort zone once again and be innovative, creative, and take risks as I look to begin the next chapter of my life, wherever that may be.
Thankfully, I graduate in December of 2021, so I will be here one more semester. Not many Presidents get the opportunity to have a front row seat for the next year. I am excited to support the next set of student leaders and encourage them to overcome the obstacles they will face, never give up, believe in themselves, and do all they can to connect the students here with all of the many great opportunities we have here at UTC.