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Gina Stafford

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My relationship with the University of Tennessee began when I was 9 years old.

UT’s White County Extension agent, Linda Koger, walked into my 4th grade classroom for the first time and enrolled me in the 4-H club, along with the 20 or so other kids in my class. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I remember being wide-eyed at the whole new world of possibility Ms. Koger promised through 4-H. I’d heard a little about it through my older brother’s involvement, and at last I was getting my turn.

Ms. Koger came back once a month, for an hour each time, and we in the Cassville Elementary 4th Grade 4-H Club got to dabble in everything from photography to public speaking to poster making.

4-H-Clover-RGB_digitalI learned what 4-H’s four Hs are, as referenced in the 4-H pledge, which we recited to start every club meeting: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

What better philosophy for a young person? For any of us?

The first chance I had, in the summer between 4th and 5th grade, I went to 4-H summer camp at the Clyde M. York Training Center near Crossville. I went back every year until I was a high school sophomore. For all of those years and on into high school, 4-H involvement took me to places all over the state, especially ones operated by UT.

My dad was a farmer, and UT Extension agents shared ideas with him for growing yields or shrinking pests. My older brother competed in crop judging, cattle judging, and building and wiring electrical systems.

When time came for college, Tennessee Tech was closer and less expensive than UT Knoxville, and I got an excellent education there that enabled me to go to Knoxville and start my professional life as the first reporter hired straight from college by the News Sentinel. When time came for graduate school, I enrolled at UT. Doing so felt like completing some kind of life circle. From being introduced to the idea of UT at 9, to being engaged in UT-backed activities up to adulthood, to finally becoming a UT alum.

But there was more to the circle, since just before I completed my master’s degree at UT, I had the exceptional good fortune to take a job as the first director of communications for the UT system.

2018 SOUT Event Speech

UT President Joe DiPietro

Obviously, not everybody who grows up in Tennessee ends up graduating from UT and being employed by UT, but there is almost nobody in Tennessee whose life is not impacted, made better or, in some cases, even enabled by the presence of the University of Tennessee.

Which is the vast and important story I get to be involved in trying to tell every year since our current UT president, Joe DiPietro, began presenting a State of the University address in 2016.

On Feb. 28, the president made his third annual address, one of those events involving a cast of thousands, but if everybody works hard enough and does everything just right, it looks easy. It isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most gratifying work experiences I’ve ever had.

2018 SOUT Event Setup

UT messaging in the speech venue.

Because I don’t just work at UT, and I’m not just a proud alum–I’m a believer. In higher education and in what the statewide UT system brings to higher ed and people from all walks of life across Tennessee. I know from personal experience.

I’m part of an enthusiastic, talented team that works on every phase of planning and execution of the presentation event that’s held in Nashville.

crowd.jpgAbout 150 UT leaders and key stakeholders attend in person, and the speech is available live on a webcast and–this year for the first time–via Facebook Live on the president’s Facebook page.

2018 SOUT Event setup

UT messaging in the event venue.

The president recapped system-wide UT highlights of the past year and plans for the year ahead. His remarks were built around a series of video stories that brought to life the University’s impact in each of its three mission pillars: education, research and outreach.

And in the final video story–one about the ways the University is bringing its full spectrum of capabilities in all three mission pillars to bear–the message was what the University is doing about the opioid crisis in Tennessee. You can watch that 2-minute video here:

UT On The Opioid Crisis.

As the president said, the opioid crisis “is exactly the kind of problem land-grant universities are meant to take on.”

Every word mattered. And all the words together painted a picture of how the statewide University of Tennessee isn’t just in Tennessee, it is Tennessee, woven into the fabric of life all across the state. That’s also the message of the video the event opened with:

Everywhere You Look, UT

The same message is the theme of the new UT System marketing campaign that launched a couple of days after the 2018 State of the University event.

As someone who dreamed of going to college from childhood and who today knows, personally, how the University of Tennessee changes lives, it’s an honor to be part of telling that story. 

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