Community Outreach

As Volunteers, we have a commitment to light the way for others and to serve as a catalyst for opportunities – on our campus and in communities near and far. Outreach and community engagement are fundamental to our mission and vital to our success as Tennessee’s flagship, land-grant university. 

The UT Office of Community Engagement and Outreach provides resources and support to integrate community engagement and facilitates connections between faculty, staff, students, and community partners. The Community-University Research Collaborative Initiative (CURCI) is a new initiative designed to foster community-engaged scholarship and mutually beneficial relationships between university faculty and the greater Knoxville community.

“Through surveying our faculty, we learned they want to work with the Knoxville community, but they feel overwhelmed and overworked by other duties,” said Jon Shefner, CURCI director and professor of sociology.  “This program offers accommodations to those who want to do the work, but have no idea how to make contact with community members.” 

Shefner and colleague Lisa East, CURCI managing director and lecturer of sociology, developed CURCI to help connect faculty with community organizations and establish a better process for collaboration between UT faculty and community members. 

“We want to make connections and help address community needs by building on the research excellence of the university and the expertise of the community to identify and resolve community issues,” East said. 

Shefner and East hope the research outcomes they generate from this three-year project will lead to a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future and enhance a campus-wide culture of innovation and collaboration at all levels. 

The UT Division of Diversity and Engagement, Office of Community Engagement and Outreach, and the UT Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development funded the project. For more information about the program, including research reports and ways to get involved, visit

A new partnership between UT and Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High School has seniors gaining confidence during the college application process by writing their personal essay. Students and staff from the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center are working individually with the seniors to discover their personal stories and champion their writing skills. 

A team of undergraduates, graduate students and English lecturers travel to the high school twice a week to offer tutoring appointments.

“A lot of students don’t complete their college applications because of their essays. The essay itself represents a real roadblock. Students are worried that what they have to put in the essay isn’t worthy,” said Kirsten Benson, director of the center.

Kelly Sauskojus, a fourth-year English PhD student and Community Engagement Academy fellow, and Anne Langendorfer, senior lecturer and community outreach fellow in the English department, were part of the team that began working with seniors in 2021, just a month before the December deadlines.

The team saw a growth in confidence in Austin-East students and an opportunity to strengthen their impact.

“If personal essay writing is happening the way it should be, you’re really getting to know somebody and you’re going to not just affirm their writing but who they are as a person,” said Sauskojus. “As a graduate student, it helps me to be able to work as a team rather than independently. It’s also been an opportunity for professional development for me.”

The initiative was initially funded in part by UT’s Division of Diversity and Engagement and Office of Community Engagement and Outreach. Benson’s team has been able to connect with more than 200 students at Austin-East, Central and Fulton High Schools, where they rotate tutoring every week.

UT has invested in a year-round presence at Austin-East through high school visits, college fairs and information sessions. The university’s undergraduate admissions office works with the school staff to educate and support students and families through the process of applying to UT and completing their financial aid application, confirmation and enrollment.

The partnership with the writing center is one of many examples of UT’s commitment to expanding access to a college education to students at Austin-East and across Tennessee.