Students Social Distancing/Wearing Masks

College students who are returning to campus this fall are likely to face two major challenges. One is financial and is in no way unique to this year, having been immortalized in the caricature of the poor college kid who survives on ramen noodles and Little Debbies. But the other challenge is social and is specific to this year: how are students supposed to return to (somewhat) normal college life after a year of pandemic and isolation?

The Division of Student Success has a new program to help students through both challenges. Named “Vols Start Back,” the initiative consists of a zero-credit hour seminar on Canvas with modules that cover topics such as health, finances and academics and are designed to help students return to in-person campus life. Students will also choose from a variety of in-person events throughout the first six weeks of the semester that will pair with the module themes.

As for helping with financial concerns, rather than having to pay to join the program, students will be paid to participate. Students will receive $50 when they register for the program and $200 when they complete it.

The in-person kick-off for Vols Start Back will take place on Monday, Aug. 16 at 1 p.m. in Student Union room 270. For students who are unable to attend, the session will be completable through the program’s Canvas page, which registered students will be invited to join. Registration for the program closes on Aug. 27.

Leonard Clemons, associate vice provost for student success, said that his counterparts at other universities are amazed that UT’s Division of Student Success is able to offer a program like Vols Start Back.

“I don’t know of any other university doing anything like this,” Clemons said. “Not only are we welcoming our students back, but we are incentivizing their re-engagement back into campus, academically, socially, financially.”

The one-of-a-kind program is meant to help students re-acclimate to campus life, from meeting with faculty and career advisors to attending lectures and social events. Clemons noted that over half of the current undergraduate students at UT have never had a normal return to campus life. He believes Vols Start Back will help facilitate a smooth return this fall.

“We’re here essentially to help students maximize their strengths and understand how their strengths can contribute to their academic dreams, career paths and personal well-being,” Clemons said. “Vols Start Back really was an opportunity that came out of discussion of trying to support the reconnection and re-engagement of students transitioning back into an in-person capacity.”

Though the program is open to all students, it is aimed primarily at sophomores, juniors and seniors who are returning to campus after one or more years at UT. Amber Williams, vice provost for student success, referred to Vols Start Back as a kind of “orientation program for our upperclassmen.”

“Our main goal is to create the conditions for every student to thrive, in its simplest form,” Williams said. “The idea of Vols Start Back came to play when we started thinking about, if we’re going to create the conditions where our students thrive, we’ve got to teach them what success looks like and help them re-engage.”

Some of the events that students may attend for Vols Start Back are ones that many would already be attending, such as the Student Engagement Fair, which is part of the Vol Night Long Experience on Aug. 20 from 6 p.m. to midnight in the Student Union. But many of the events were specially crafted to pair with Vols Start Back modules and to help students think critically about their goals and how they want to reach them.

For students who are already engaged in campus life or who do not think they have much to gain from the program, Williams said that the program will still be a chance to learn new things.

“I think every opportunity is an opportunity to learn,” Williams said. “Even if you think you know things, the opportunity itself just to engage with other students and engage with your faculty, engage with your college, is a great opportunity. Part of being a Volunteer is the courage to lead, so this is an opportunity for every student to lead.”

And, if completing tailored modules and attending Student Success events doesn’t sell the program, perhaps the $250 award will. Williams said that students will have the option to receive the money as a credit through their MyUTK account or as a direct refund.

“It’s not gonna hurt you to engage,” Williams said. “In fact, you’re being paid to do so.”

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