When he heard former UT Knoxville football player Inquoris “Inky” Johnson speak during Homecoming of 2018, professor Dayakar Penumadu saw a spirit and character he felt worthy of recognition.
Penumadu—the Fred N. Peebles Professor and Joint Institute for Advanced Materials Chair of Excellence in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering—went home and spoke with his wife, Marie, about establishing a scholarship in Johnson’s name.
In the words of Marie, her husband felt led by faith to start the Inky Johnson Perseverance Scholarship. Johnson was at the peak of his UT football career in 2006 when he was injured during a tackle that paralyzed his right arm.
“When Dayakar heard Inky speak, he was just so motivated to do something and recognize how committed Inky Johnson has been to the Volunteer spirit, despite everything he’d been through,” Marie said. “Dayakar came home and told me that he believed our youth need to hear Inky’s message, and that we, as adults, need to as well. I think God really put that on Dayakar’s heart, and when he says he’ll do something he follows through.”
That was the beginning of the Inky Johnson Perseverance Scholarship, which the Penumadus established to inspire hope. Professor Penumadu points out that UT’s students are an ambitious group and, while only some have overcome dramatic life hurdles, all are traversing new life experiences during their time at the university and that can be difficult.
“Even people from very well-to-do backgrounds can struggle,” Penumadu said. “Perfectly capable and well-raised young people can struggle. Inky is such an inspirational figure, and his example can provide hope and help young people get out of a rut. We all have needs, and Inky demonstrates a skill set that includes optimism and perseverance.”
Scholarship recipient Brooke Berry (’23), a biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology major, is on the pre-medicine pathway and interested in providing health care to women in underprivileged areas.
“This scholarship showed that I have people who believe in me, and know I will be successful, even on the days when I doubt myself,” Berry said. “The scholarship means the world to me. The Penumadu family believed in me when I had no one in my corner, and they gave me a reason to continue my studies.”
Christina Fulkerson (’21), a fifth-year child and family studies major, expressed her gratitude and said the scholarship has made an enormous difference in her life as a student.
“The scholarship has allowed me to focus on my studies,” Fulkerson said. “Without it, I would not have been able to pay for the fall semester without getting another job or taking out another loan.”
Perseverance during difficult times is exactly what the Inky Johnson Perseverance Scholarship seeks to foster, said Penumadu.
“Doing the best you can will eventually lead to success,” he said. “Most of us are not perfect, and most of us go through struggles. You just have to stick with it and not get discouraged. Inky Johnson has that attitude despite all that he’s been through. He’s a true Vol For Life and an inspiration to us all.”
The Penumadus’ gift aspires to honor Inky through its support of students who overcome adversity to continue their academic pursuits on Rocky Top. The university welcomes additional contributions at https://giving.utk.edu/inky in hopes of endowing the scholarship in perpetuity.