The University of Tennessee has changed me.
I came in younger and more naïve, unsure about myself and my future, and just flat-out scared. I'm still most of those things, but – by the virtue of the UT professors who have let me into their programs and laboratories, the UT staff members who have encouraged and supported me, and my UT student peers from whom I have learned far, far more than I ever will in any classroom – in a little over two months I'll be headed out of here, and, for now at least, I'll be going somewhere.
I haven't attended a single football or basketball game, and the extent of my athletic involvement has been that one time freshman year I went to TRECS to get a smoothie. I may not be what immediately comes to mind when you picture a UT fan, but in the past four years, this place has become a part of me.
Cut me, and I might just bleed a little orange.
So maybe it's just because of my own selfishness or pride, but I care about this place. And as I've flown around the country these past few weeks interviewing at various universities for graduate school, it's been a bit dismaying that there have been instances – multiple instances – where someone has looked at me, a bit confused, and asked me why I decided to go to the University of Tennessee.
People in the places that I've visited – New York, Ann Arbor, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Atlanta – many of the places that house universities that are among our target group of Top 25 public research universities – don't know about the University of Tennessee. If they do, it's because they remember some news last year about a university in Tennessee – typical Tennessee – that pulled its Sex Week funding amid some Fox News uproar.
It's no secret that Big Orange, Big Ideas is a big marketing campaign, launched almost exactly two years ago to more than its share of student criticism. Its purpose, according to the Chancellor's 2012 Newsletter, is to "remind people of UT's impact on the state and the nation" – a "platform for telling our story and strengthening our reputation – all of which plays a big role in helping us move into the ranks of the Top 25."
It's had some success. There's no denying that the phrase is catchy, and, mockingly or not, it's certainly been co-opted by plenty of student organizations and campaigns.
But across the country, it's a different story. It seems the only people that Big Orange, Big Ideas has actually reached are the only people it didn't need to reach: the people already on this campus.
Two years into the campaign, and we seem to be coming across a problem; national attention is hard to get and even harder to carry.
So maybe it's actually fortunate, then, that we have found ourselves under the representation of one Stacey Campfield, a man who seems to have a knack for attracting the very kind of national exasperation that keeps people watching.
We are even luckier, still, that his representation has happened to coincide with a Big Idea – the now-condemned student organization of the University of Tennessee Sex Week. Lucky that the state legislature's apparent disappointment in not having succeeded in quenching Sex Week once and for all with last year's pressure has not led to the legislature backing down this year, but rather for them to increase pressure in ridiculous, attention-catching ways – a hilarious 69 votes for condemnation, a threat to change student fees, a proposed bill that could do away with using institutional fees to bring outside speakers to the university entirely.
No matter your politics, there's no denying that Sex Week and its ridiculous backlash has brought the University of Tennessee something that no branding campaign, even with $85,000, could buy: the national spotlight.
If we cannot see the value in Sex Week's principles – in its encouragement to talk and think openly about issues of sexuality and gender so that you can make your own informed decisions – we should, at the very least, be able to see the value in its apparent power to stir things up.
The University of Tennessee has been handed a stage. Thankfully it doesn't look like we're pushing it over like we did last year, but it stands to be seen whether we will be standing tepidly in the corner watching everything take place, or if we'll step right up to the center and boldly proclaim to the rest of the nation what its students already know – we're big, we're orange and not only do we have Big Ideas, we stand behind them.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.