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Our Commitment to Antiracism and Allyship

The Tickle College of Engineering has a long tradition of encouraging diversity and inclusion through a range of programs and student organizations. But following the unjust deaths of African Americans experienced throughout the country this year, students and faculty have called upon the college to take more assertive steps to combat unconscious bias and systemic racism. We are answering that call with action across the college.

Over the summer, university students, faculty, and staff met via Zoom in in a town hall gathering focused on allyship and antiracism. The college followed with a listening session in which many people shared thoughts, feelings, and ideas for making improvements. From that session, more than 70 Engineering Vols made commitments to join efforts for effective action through the creation of an Allyship and Antiracism in Engineering Taskforce. The taskforce will work with leaders throughout the college to rapidly turn ideas into reality and ensure that the entire TCE community feels welcomed and supported.

Since early spring, the college has been working on a Diversity Action Plan that will be completed this fall. Alumni Robert Lewis and Rachel McCord Ellestad are examples of strengthening diversity and inclusivity efforts in the college through three major points of success:

  • Enhancing the engineering experience for all to improve recruitment, retention, and success;

  • Increasing the number of in-state, underserved, undergraduate engineering scholarships; and

  • Building new mentoring partnerships to enhance diversity in our workforce and academia.

The college is committed to exemplifying the Volunteer Spirit by being a community that respects, appreciates, and values people irrespective of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental or physical ability, socio-economic status, religion, national origin and/or citizenship status. We strongly believe that through inclusivity, our efforts, and engineering as a profession, is stronger and more resilient.

Here are the stories of two active supporters of the Office of Engineering Diversity Programs (EDP) and the efforts discussed above:


Robert Lewis.Robert Lewis

Current Location: Boca Raton, Florida
Education: BS, ChemE ’81, UT

Lewis is a member of Group 4 of the Fred D. Brown Minority Engineering Scholarship program (MESP). His nearly four decades of experience in corporate America included time at both Proctor & Gamble and PepsiCo, much of that time spent in R&D, while also serving as a recruiter. Lewis served as president of the UT Alumni Board from 2017–2018.

Q: Why is it important to support programming for diversity within TCE?

A: For me, I recognize that I was given a great gift of a scholarship that not only provided tuition help, but also allowed me to earn money through the co-op experience so that I could fund a great deal of my education that I received at UT. And I am a firm believer in the old adage ‘to whom much is given, much is required,’ so with that understanding, I know how important it is to provide financial support for students who might not be fortunate enough to provide that support on their own.

I know from 37 years in corporate America that one of the most important battles being waged in trying to build out a more diverse population of employees is having a strong and robust pipeline of minority talent. My giving back is essential to ensuring that that pipeline is robust and sustainable, and a sustainable source of diverse talent both now and into the future.

Q: Can you share a story about the impact made by your gift?

A: As part of the recent 45th anniversary celebration of the Fred D. Brown program, the college arranged, for lack of a better term, a speed dating sort of thing with students. That was so rewarding in that you get an opportunity to see just how talented the students are. You see how eager they are to learn. You see how eager they are to get out into industry and make a difference in the world. It was very clear to me that any gift we could provide to the university was most certainly going to a righteous cause. These are exactly the students that my companies have been looking for over the years and so it solidified for me that the Tickle College of Engineering deserved to be, and would be, an ongoing source of talent for the industry.

Q: What would you say to others who are on the fence about getting involved?

A: I always come at it that the way to ensure that an initiative or program is moving in the right direction, there’s no better way to do that than to get personally involved. My feeling is through that involvement your eyes will be opened in a number of ways. [Providing support] expands your view of the world, and where it is going, and helps us all feel  confident that the world is in great hands. Part of our role is to ensure that the next generation of leaders has what it needs to be successful.


Rachel McCord Ellestad.Rachel McCord Ellestad

Current Location: Knoxville
Education: BS, ME ’06, UT; MS, ME ’08, UT; MBA ’08, UT; PhD, Engr Ed ’14 Virginia Tech

Ellestad is a several-time UT graduate. She was even a student in the engage Engineering Fundamentals program as an undergrad and taught EF as a graduate student. Now as a lecturer in that same program, she has spent the last two summers working with the Summer Engineering Advancement program (SEA), while also serving as one of the faculty advisors for the Society of Women Engineers.

Q: Why is it important to support programming for diversity within TCE?

A: I think it is important for every student in TCE to feel like they have a place they belong. We have a number of challenges that face our society today. Solutions to these challenges are going to require input from diverse perspectives and experiences. Students in our engineering diversity programs tend to bring a high level of creativity and innovation, which is critical to successful engineering solutions. I feel driven to support these students so I can help foster an environment that allows their creativity and innovation to flourish!

Q: Can you share a story about the impact made by your gift?

A: Last summer, we had our first cohort of SEA students. It was an intense program where they had a chance to work through almost the first half of EF 151 in about 3 weeks. I know it was a hard three weeks and I was honestly nervous that the students wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me after all the work I made them do. The first few weeks of the fall semester were some of the best I had at UT because I had so many SEA students stop by to say hi, tell me how their semester was going, and run up and give high fives or hugs. I was so encouraged by not only their amazing performance in the fall, but the wonderful community they had developed among the other SEA participants.

Q: What would you say to others who are on the fence about getting involved?

A: As an instructor, I have personally seen many students benefit from their involvement in engineering diversity programming over the past six years. The support, encouragement, and resources offered by EDP is excellent and highly impactful to students across the college and in our East Tennessee community. The support of TCE and EDP ensures that programs like SEA can continue to grow and thrive.

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