Five years ago, KoJak Wells (’20) was working at Dollar General, substitute teaching, and playing piano for pay at Knoxville-area churches.
“I had never thought about college before,” Wells says. “I had no idea what was out there for me.”
But with a fiancée and baby on the way, he felt there was no better time to make the jump. After attending Pellissippi State Community College, Wells transferred to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The dreams Wells had for himself, his family, and his community began taking shape in the two years he spent in UT’s Haslam College of Business. Now Wells is speaking out about the opportunities a college education affords students of any background.
“Haslam didn’t just shape me into the leader I am today,” Wells says. “It shaped me into the stronger, more engaged leader I can become in the future.”
In November 2020, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and was hired by Proctor & Gamble as a financial brand manager at its Cincinnati headquarters.
Ryan Farley, clinical assistant professor of finance, saw something special in Wells.
“It is charisma matched with hard work and technical skills that sets him apart,” Farley says.
Farley suggested that Wells apply for Torch Funds, a program he oversees that allows finance students to manage a $3 million portfolio of securities donated by generous alumni. For two semesters, Wells served as an investment analyst and portfolio manager for the Carroll Funds, a $600,000 portfolio belonging to alumnus Larry Carroll (’78), founder and CEO of Carroll Financial Associates. After a final presentation by Wells and his group, Farley was asked by two impressed individuals who had attended if he could set up a professional introduction.
“Sometimes you only get one chance, and KoJak knows that,” Farley says. “It’s what motivates him.”
Tyvi Small, UT’s vice chancellor for diversity and engagement, served as Wells’ mentor.
“KoJak embodies what our land-grant mission was designed to do,” Small says. “It’s about giving people access to opportunities. We do the work to support our students and advocate for them so they get to have experiences like he does now.”
From where he is today—a family man with three daughters, a college degree, and a successful career ahead—the Dollar General stock room seems a million miles away for Wells. And he is more thankful than ever for the ways UT allowed him to thrive.
“Being a Volunteer taught me that the limits we place on our lives are solely limited to the goals we set,” Wells says. “That’s why Vols dream big.”