Kinesiology major Chelsea Igbenu knows it sounds like the corniest thing ever—like what every student in every movie about college has repeated when asked about their time there. But when she was recently asked by a professor to share one piece of advice from her time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, it was the first thing to come out of her mouth.
“Get involved,” Igbenu said. “Don’t wait until you feel comfortable. At the end of the day, when you leave UT you want to know you made the most of every moment here.” She didn’t realize it until now, days from graduating with her bachelor’s degree. Maybe all those movies about college aren’t so wrong after all.
Igbenu, a first-generation college student from Nashville, rarely hesitated to sign up for new opportunities over the years. Her first semester on campus, she participated in the UT LEAD program, which helps first-gen students develop leadership skills, build support networks with other students, and receive academic and social support during their first year on campus. Her second semester, Igbenu was chosen to serve in the Student Success Ambassadors program as a mentor for other first-gen students. In her final months at UT she was a peer mentor for a first-year studies course, serving as a point of contact for students new to Rocky Top.
“I really enjoy talking to students who may be going through the same things I did, or who may be on a similar journey,” Igbenu said. “I can tell them what worked for me and what didn’t. I could be for them what I didn’t have when I first got to college.”
Jenny Boucher is an assistant director of the Academic Success Center and helped launch the Student Success Ambassadors program in 2019. From their first conversation, she knew that Igbenu, whose sense of humor and energy immediately made an impression, was an ideal choice for making other first-gen students feel comfortable opening up about their own stories and struggles.
“She is a light and joy to have in class,” Boucher said. “She has such depth of thought. But she also brings this light energy that really creates a family atmosphere in the classroom. She isn’t afraid to talk to anyone.”
For Igbenu, that fearlessness comes from knowing she was where she was meant to be from the moment she first toured UT’s campus as a high school senior.
“Stepping foot here, I really felt this sense that everyone who comes here becomes a part of something bigger,” Igbenu said. “Speaking from the perspective of a high school senior, you’re looking for something that’ll be worth your time. You don’t want to pay thousands of dollars, then graduate and be like, ‘Yeah, I never want to go back to that place again.’ I’m sitting here, a couple of days until graduation, and I know coming back here is going to be very sentimental.
“I made something of UT. It resonated with me. It’s a second home now.”
Making Her Own Path
When Igbenu was five years old, her parents moved the family from Warri, Nigeria, to Middle Tennessee. Throughout her childhood, they always emphasized the importance of getting an education. Her sister, who is nine years older, was the first in the family to go to college. Igbenu’s parents hoped she would follow in her sister’s footsteps, choosing a school close to home.
But Igbenu felt there was something different about UT. Her friends from Hillwood High School had chosen to become Volunteers, and she knew that by joining them in Knoxville she’d always have a support group in place. “And a ride back home,” she told her parents, laughing.
Initially Igbenu applied for the nursing program. Her application wasn’t accepted. But she worked with her academic counselor, Megan King, to find an alternate route to reach her goals.
“I knew that it was just a speed bump,” said King, now a coordinator in the Office of Academic Inclusive Initiatives. “I knew she could find a different path to where she was going. She was someone who wasn’t going to give up or take anything lying down.”
To Igbenu, knowing that someone who wasn’t her mom or dad had her back made a real difference. “Someone saw my potential and had no doubt that I could make it to where I needed to be,” she said.
Igbenu had been a competitive volleyball player through her teen years. So she declared a major in kinesiology her junior year, knowing it would set her up to attend nursing school later. “If there’s one thing I was going to be passionate about, it was learning how the body works,” she said.
The courses were hard. But Igbenu’s professors—particularly Professor Songning Zhang and Assistant Professor of Practice Rachel Tatarski—created an atmosphere that kept her engaged and interested.
“You can really tell when a professor is passionate about what they’re talking about,” Igbenu said. “They were both so funny. And they were always finding different ways to present what you were learning. Every day was something new.”
Next Stop on the Journey
Outside of taking classes and serving in various student leadership roles on campus, Igbenu spent most of her time at college working. Her sophomore year, she was certified as a pharmacy tech for Kroger, where she’s worked 20 to 30 hours a week for the past two years.
Most days after her shifts, she arrived home tired, needing to do homework, knowing she couldn’t just go hang out with her friends. But she took that balancing act as learning opportunity.
In the course she took her second semester on campus to become a student success ambassador, Igbenu was mentored by Boucher on UT’s student support resources so she could disseminate that information among her own mentees. In academic counseling with King, she learned about time management and goal setting.
“I learned what strategies worked for me,” Igbenu said. “That really helped me stand on my own two feet and feel confident that I was doing everything I needed to do to be successful.”
She took those lessons and applied them with her mentees throughout the years.
“When you get to college, everyone likes to talk about making it through the four years and then getting out,” said Igbenu, who will begin an accelerated nursing program at the UT Health Science Center in January. “But there are long nights, tears, the angst of failing exams. I look back on all the times I told myself I wasn’t capable enough. And I’m standing here now in a position to graduate, and I know I was capable.”
Beyond getting involved in everything they can, that’s the lesson Igbenu really wishes new students will understand as soon as they arrive to campus—words she hopes ring true as she crosses the commencement stage at Thompson-Boling Arena
“You may need to get out of your shell and step into new experiences,” Igbenu said. “Don’t let one bad obstacle damage your whole experience. Always believe in yourself and your capabilities. In life, the journey isn’t always straight and narrow. It has lots of curves.”
In December, the university will award approximately 1,088 undergraduate degrees and 578 graduate degrees and certificates. Three Air Force ROTC cadets will be commissioned during the undergraduate ceremony.