If Terry Denniston could travel back in time for 10 years to meet herself, she would have a piece of advice to offer: Get to know even more students than she has since joining the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 34 years ago.
“They are the key to everything,” she says.
“I think it’s critical that, at a leadership position, you have to stay in touch with students,” she continues. “If you’re not listening to students, you can get caught up in the Ivory Tower and not know what’s going on. All of us have great ideas, but if we don’t remember that we’re here for students first, and that they have a whole lot to offer and help us along the path to student success, then I think we’ve missed it.”
Denniston joined UTC in 1986 as director of alumni affairs. Over the decades, she also coached the Sugar Mocs dance team and served as advisor to numerous student groups, including the Student Government Association. Her current role as chief of staff has given her a front-row seat to the last 10 years of changes that have shaped UTC into a thriving, metropolitan university of today.
“I think throughout the years UTC has had absolutely fantastic leadership from all of our leaders. Everybody has laid groundwork from whence they came,” Denniston says. “From Chancellors Roger Brown to Grady Bogue to Steve Angle, the school’s leaders have had the opportunity because of what our forefathers did to make things even better. So this has been an exciting time for the University.”
From 2010 until 2020, the University’s physical campus transformed with beautification projects and an emphasis on community by renovating and revitalizing the streets connecting campus to the heart of downtown Chattanooga. Denniston says making campus more welcoming and student-friendly bolstered the growth of student numbers. “You improve the campus therefore you get more students. Ten years ago, we did not have the 11,000 students we have today,” she says.
Even with growth and community bond, UTC still has a specific advantage that makes it stand out from peer institutions. “That’s an easy one,” Denniston responds with a sly smile. “At UTC, our students get to know our faculty.
“We still have that small student-to-faculty ratio. We also place a huge emphasis on student learning, not by just preaching it, but successfully practicing it. We’re just doing a better job now of getting it organized and pushing it out with everything we do,” Denniston adds, citing the emphasis on experiential learning for UTC students today.
As for the next 10 years, now is not the time to sit back on laurels and say, “We’re done. We need to say, ‘This is going to be the best decade that UTC has.’ And again, it’s because of our founding and the commitment that leaders have made, that former faculty, staff and students did when they were here. It’s not that we’re going to be better because they weren’t good, it’s that we’re going to be better because they were good and where they’ve sent us.