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The Road to Commencement: Paved with Resilience and Community

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The following story mentions suicide.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please seek help. You are not alone.
If you are a UT student, faculty, or staff in need of assistance, call or text 865-974-HELP.

Bri Swindell sitting on the stairs of the Student Union dressed in commencement regaliaWhen Bri Swindell enrolled at the University of Tennessee in the fall of 2018, she had no idea the six-year challenge that would stand between her and graduation. But this spring, Swindell is completing her degree. With the exception of a one-time $3,000 loan, her tuition has been paid in full each semester, primarily from income she earned while working at the Student Union. Now, Swindell is graduating with not only minimal student loan debt but also with a sense of purpose and direction for her future with a career in student affairs. 

As a first-year student, Swindell relied on financial assistance from her parents while attending UT. When financial difficulties struck her family during her sophomore year, Swindell decided to take a year off amid the COVID-19 pandemic in order to address her own mental health challenges and alleviate financial stress for her family. 

Swindell got a job at a gas station about an hour from campus to help her family with expenses and save to eventually re-enroll at UT. Every paycheck Swindell put money aside to help pay for classes. Then, after starting classes again, Swindell heard about a position at the Student Union. She landed the role and started working on campus, which made attending classes much easier while also allowing her to work as many hours as possible. 

“If I wasn’t in classes, I was working,” says Swindell. “I worked full-time in the summers and part-time during semesters. I could only pay for two classes each semester so I had a lot of time I could spend working to save money.” 

Swindell notes that coming back to UT after taking a year off was difficult, and that her financial struggles weighed on her.

“Having the Student Union support system was huge for me and helped me get accustomed to being back on campus,” she adds. 

After a year in her role, Swindell was promoted to the student manager position. In this role, Swindell managed other student workers, teaching them the specifics of needed tasks and building relationships. This promotion also served as a turning point for her in understanding student affairs. She attended the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) conference and developed her leadership skills as she supervised other students. 

“The student manager role has taught me responsibility, not just of my finances but also in my work life, in being able to schedule commitments, and be responsible to the commitments I make,” says Swindell. “It also taught me resilience. Even if something doesn’t happen how I think, everything is going to be alright.”

Austin Seay, an events and facilities coordinator at the Student Union, oversees student managers, a role that students have to be promoted into from lower positions. He has been supervising Swindell for the past 18 months. 

“You can easily see resilience in Bri’s character, even in her history with us,” states Seay.

“She applied once for the student manager position and was not promoted, but then she applied again after pursuing growth opportunities within the team. She grew based on the feedback we gave her, and then when she re-applied we decided she was ready for the added responsibility.”

Swindell’s resilience would be put to the test in December of 2022, when her mental health struggles resulted in a suicide attempt and a 72-hour hospitalization. Swindell credits her community support system at the Student Union with encouraging her through this period. 

“They checked on me when I was hospitalized and checked on me every day after. I didn’t go a single day without someone from the Student Union reaching out to check on me. I’m proud of still being here, and I’ve learned how to push through and hold on, knowing that there will be better days ahead,” says Swindell. 

Bri Swindell and Amanda Griffiths pose for a photoAmanda Griffiths, another events and facilities coordinator at the Student Union, supervised Bri before she was promoted to student manager.

“One of the best things about the employment program here is we try to understand that every student is different, and they’re going to have their own challenges,” says Griffiths. “Some are working here to have some spending money for the weekends, but others are here truly in order to pay for rent and continue to attend UT. We get to know them to learn who they are and why they are here so we can better support them.” 

Griffiths recalls quickly realizing that Swindell was working at the Student Union not only because she needed income to support her journey at UT but also because she needed a place to belong. Griffiths watched Swindell grow despite the challenges she faced. She evolved from not being confident in her answers to questions while working at the information desk to rising to the occasion with confidence and leadership, no matter what was going on in her personal life. 

“Despite what she faced, her growth was always consistent. But when Bri moved into the student manager position, that’s when she really excelled in herself. The position gave her everything she needed to fully realize her potential and to realize her managerial and leadership skills,” adds Griffiths. 

Swindell took it upon herself to get experience in all seven work areas at the Student Union, which Seay notes makes her one of the most versatile student employees. 

“Supervising Bri has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my time at UT,” says Seay. “Through her I’ve learned about myself, how to develop my own management style to be empathetic toward others, and to build deep connections with the student employees under my supervision.” 

Bri Swindell poses for a fun selfie with other Student Union student employeesSwindell notes that the Student Union is the place on campus where she has built the strongest community with students, supervisors, and professional staff. Working with the staff and being introduced to ACUI also led Swindell to student affairs, which is now the primary focus of her career aspirations. 

“I really enjoy making a difference in the lives of college students,” concludes Swindell. 

Swindell has been accepted into the College Student Personnel program at UT for the fall of 2024 and will pursue a master’s degree in higher education administration following graduation. She also hopes to find a graduate assistant position in the Division of Student Life and eventually earn a Ph.D. in higher education administration as well.