A Flagship Writing Program

A woman speaking at a podium with the UT logo behind her

by Randall Brown

UT’s Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center has long been a valuable campus resource for students needing guidance on first-year composition themes and tricky upper-level thesis transitions. The Volunteer Spirit inspired the center’s team to share their tutoring skills off campus in 2021 in response to needs expressed by the Knoxville community. 

In just three short years, their Flagship Writing Project has helped more than 1,000 Knoxville high-school students navigate their college application essays and has established an ongoing outreach role for the center. 

The project arose following a series of tragic shootings in 2021 that traumatized students at Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High School. Tyvi Small and Javiette Samuel, vice chancellor and associate vice chancellor, respectively, for UT’s Division of Access and Engagement, reached out to Austin-East Principal Tammi Campbell to ask how the university could help the high school community heal.

“In the process of those conversations, some English teachers at Austin-East voiced the need for more writing support for their students,” said Kirsten Benson, director of the Herbert Writing Center. The hope was that such support could not only help with college applications, but contribute to Austin-East students’ sense of future possibilities in their education.

“In that summer, a few English graduate students volunteered to work with some of the Austin-East students,” Benson said. “As soon as fall semester started, we ramped up as quickly as we could.”

Their outreach earned a $5,000 grant from the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, adding to initial funding from UT Access and Engagement. They expanded tutoring to two other Knox County high schools designated as “Flagship Schools”: Fulton and Central. Across the three schools, the UT team was able to offer tutoring to approximately 550 students in 2022–2023. 

Austin-East alumnus Darius Jackson, now a UT marketing major, was among those students.

“It helped me become a more thoughtful writer,” Jackson said. “Not only did it help with figuring out how I wanted to write my essay, but it also helped me have a better way to plan for essay writing in my college classes.”

An instructor in the writing center talks to a student
An instructor in the writing center talks to a student

Fellow Austin-East alumnus Maurice Davis agrees.

“The essay tutoring program helped tremendously in my college admissions experience,” said Davis, now a biology major with an environmental science minor. “It helped me come into class prepared and know what’s expected in college writing.”

The grant funded English PhD student Kelly Sauskojus to act as a key tutor for the program. She saw two major benefits through her one-on-one engagement.

“The more expected benefit was better fluency in professional writing genres—certainly application essays for college, but I’ve also helped students work on resumes, job application letters, and scholarship essays,” she said. “I saw lots of growth and lots of successful writing in brand new genres to these students.”

The second benefit she noted was in helping the students find confidence in telling their own stories.

“It’s not uncommon for most high school students to say, ‘I haven’t done anything interesting enough to write about,’” Sauskojus said. “So, while trying to help them plan out their writing process, the real thing that I’m doing is being a present and attentive listener to the kinds of stories they’re telling me about who they are.”

That interaction helps students know that their stories matter and that they could absolutely take on a college education. 

“I think that represents as great a benefit to students as getting an application essay done by the early admissions deadline,” said Sauskojus.

The Herbert Writing Center conducted an in-depth study to determine the best ways to sustain and improve the program, surveying high school staff members’ perceptions of students’ attitudes towards writing and learning more about the students’ needs.

Matt Bryant Cheney oversees much of the implementation of their findings as the center’s assistant director for faculty development, community engagement, and research. 

“The information gleaned from those conversations has informed the way we train tutors,” said Bryant Cheney. “We approach workshops with students with a more targeted and strategic approach.”

The writing center continues to expand its services, building on these collaborations with high schools, the local community, and other UT units.

“There are a lot of groups in Knoxville and on campus who are working on this type of engagement,” said Benson. “Fortunately, we’re now sitting in on those meetings. It’s a sense of fullness that we’re all working together to accomplish the same goals.”

An instructor in the writing center poses for a group photo with four students