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Igniting Service and Leadership on Campus

900x450-Ignite-and-Ayres-HallBy Nichole Stevens 

Jessica Blanford, Assistant Director for the Center for Leadership and Service Learning, spends much of her efforts overseeing UT’s Ignite Serves. The Ignite program, of which Serves is a part, started around 14 years ago as a transition program to help incoming freshmen make the jump from high school to college. Ignite helps students and parents solidify their choice.

There are three Ignite programs: Ignite Summit, Ignite Outdoors and Ignite Serves. The original, Ignite Summit, focuses on a leadership and traditions. Students learn about the traditions and rich history of UT, and talk about how diversity and identity shape and enrich individuals and the university community. The Outdoors and Serves programs were then added in 2013, and work to physically engage the students not only with the UT community but with the greater Knoxville community as well. Ignite Outdoors is a 5-day wilderness retreat, in partnership with the UT Outdoor Program and RecSports department. Ignite Serves is a four-day event that starts the week before fall semester. Over 500 students volunteer for 50 community partners and attend leadership workshops on campus.

The Center for Leadership and Service Team

UT’s Center for Leadership and Service Staff Team – Jessica Blanford in red blouse

Blanford and her colleagues have assessed and tracked student participation over 14 years, and find that student participants are more likely to stay at UT their sophomore year, are more likely to graduate, and more likely to get involved generally on campus. “One of our largest goals with Ignite is to get students excited about being a Tennessee Volunteer, ” said Blanford.

Blanford said the Chancellor is a huge proponent of Ignite.

“Where he came from, there was a similar type of program, and so he knows what it can do for a student’s experience and I think that’s why he is a strong supporter of the program.”

Parents would send Blanford emails saying “‘my student was so afraid about coming to college and Ignite has made them so much more comfortable.’” With the support from the university, parents, and the community, Ignite has been able to increase its resources and include the two additional programs, including the Serves program, to further galvanize student learning and involvement.

A unique aspect of the “volunteer spirit” in Knoxville are the large number of non-profit organizations in the area. The Center for Leadership and Service engages students with these organizations through service opportunities.

“We bring 35-40 students to each partner and they can get large projects done in 2-3 hours, at no cost,” Blanford said. “There’s a need for sustainable volunteers out there, and the relationship students build give them something to go back to. It’s not just a one-time thing.”

Whether it’s painting a playroom or helping with a large harvest, Ignite Serves continues to engage the university with the community.


Ignite Serves was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.