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Walking in Your Shoes

When struggling first-generation students come to Tyvi Small for help, he understands their needs.

Before he became the executive director of talent management, diversity, and community relations in the Haslam College of Business, Small was a first-generation college student himself.

So whether a student feels lost on campus, needs academic coaching, or can’t navigate university bureaucracy, Small has been in their shoes.

“I see so many young people on campus who remind me of myself,” said Small, who meets many first-generation students while teaching BUAD 100, a course for first-year business students.

He tells these students they aren’t alone in feeling lost and unsure. About one-fourth of UT students come from homes where neither parent has a four-year degree; about 10 percent of freshmen who entered in fall 2018 have parents who never attended college.

“It has been done before,” he reassures them. “You are not the only one going through this. You are not the only one struggling.”

Small looks to connect students, especially first-generation students, with mentors and opportunities for tutoring and networking. He makes sure they’re aware of UT’s growing resources for first-generation students.

He encourages them to reach out—to be proactive in helping themselves. “I say, ‘Come by our office. Give us a call. Knock on our door. Never be afraid to knock.’”

Small was raised in Pahokee, Florida, by his mother, who worked as a school bus driver. He went to a small high school. He loved learning and could have been a top student—but, like many teenage boys, Small worried that looking too smart wouldn’t be cool.

Still, Small always knew he wanted to go to college. Although his mom hadn’t had the benefit of higher education, she always encouraged him to strive for more.

His aunt Janice, who graduated from Knoxville College and became a schoolteacher, “helped me understand the importance of college,” Small said. “She always told me that education is the great equalizer.”

After high school, Small struggled to apply for financial aid and to submit his application to the University of South Florida. Once accepted, he had to figure out how to register for classes. When he got to campus, he found more hurdles.

“I remember thinking, ‘Can I compete with all the kids from really big high schools?’’’

Small said the first semester of his freshman year was a struggle. He spent a lot of time catching up with his better-prepared classmates and learning how to study.

Along the way, he found mentors and help from the federal TRIO programs on campus. Those programs, some of which also operate at UT, provide services for low-income and first-generation college students, along with other students from disadvantaged groups.

Small earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from USF as well as a Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction. He’s currently pursuing his PhD in higher education administration at UT.

One of his early jobs was working as an admissions counselor for multicultural recruitment at USF.

At UT, Small is instrumental in recruiting and mentoring diverse students in Haslam College. Along with founding the Business Education for Talented Students program, he has started several student associations.

He says all of these experiences have taught him that “sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. The good thing is, there are plenty of people who are ready to walk with you, to help you navigate the process.”