In small towns, where communities are tightly knit and opportunities may seem limited, what truly makes people able to harness their resilience and resourcefulness to achieve success even in the face of seeming adversity? Dr. Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity & engagement at the University of Tennessee, is a first-generation college student who grew up in one of those small towns: Pahokee, Florida.
I recently spoke to Dr. Small, who said, “I wanted something more and to find my own voice” as many do in those towns, but he credits his hard-working single mother, strong-willed grandmother, large extended family, loving church community and a grounding in faith that shaped him to find his voice.
High school student Tyvi met Dr. Sam Wright, the assistant director of admissions for the University of South Florida, where Tyvi was then recruited to attend. Tyvi earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from USF.
As a student at USF, Tyvi Small served as both the student body president and homecoming king, finding his voice as a leader and influencer, embodying one of his favorite personal mottos: “Activity doesn’t equate impact.”
Graduate Tyvi Small intended to attend law school, but he was persistently recruited for Dr. Sam Wright’s position at the University of South Florida. Small says, “I didn’t even know higher education was a career, but they kept recruiting me until I finally took the job.”
He started in multicultural recruiting and when he realized the impact he was making, it gave him such joy and gratification, he has stayed in the field, finally landing at the University of Tennessee 16 years ago.
During those years, Dr. Small worked in the business college where he collaborated with area high schools to start summer programs that over 15 years impacted hundreds of students. In fact, 51% of those students entered the university with 30% studying business, many of them being first generation college students.
Dr. Small says that he will continue to do what he does, “As long as I continue to lift up others and to make an impact.”
You can hear that passion when he speaks about the Flagship Communities that are evolving in our area. Currently we have almost 40 flagship schools across our state whose students receive free tuition at the university if they graduate from high school, get accepted to the university and then maintain their grades at the university. We have three Knox County flagship schools: Austin East Magnet, Central High and Fulton High.
The goal is to extend the vision to the feeder schools to the high schools and make them Flagship Communities so the students in the elementary and middle schools set their goals early in their learning environment, building a pathway for K-8 grades.
Dr. Small names his goal: “Find kids like me and give them access and opportunity to be successful.”
What are the challenges to being a visionary at a large setting like the University of Tennessee, as well as having such a big vision as Flagship Communities, because his vision is not only center city but rural communities and statewide communities? Dr. Small’s vision is limitless.
Small says, “My challenges have been to give opportunities to everyone to live out their dreams. I want to give access to help all the students through the process, not just recruitment, but also retention is important to truly realize the dream.
“We want to reach the rural areas as well. We are developing stronger partnerships with UT extension to serve those communities.
“Campuses need to meet students where they are and we are working to do that.”
Dr. Small met his wife, Tammi, at the university and they do what brings them joy, which is watching baseball as she is a big baseball fan, walking the greenways of Knoxville and traveling. He says he has a great leadership team that helps him impact all the communities they serve.
I believe the Dr. in front of Tyvi Small could stand for “Dreamer” as this visionary little boy from small town Pahokee, Florida, has found his voice and is doing something more by changing the lives of thousands from small (and large) towns every day.
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