When she first toured the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus as a high school student, Julia Stranahan said she already felt at home.
When she crosses the McKenzie Arena stage as part of commencement ceremonies this Saturday, May 6, Stranahan will be saying goodbye to her home of the last four years.
Bittersweet moment? Maybe. Ready for what’s next? Absolutely.
“Every time I’ve stepped on campus, I have felt like this is the place for me,” said Stranahan, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in English rhetoric and professional writing. “When I came to UTC and toured, I had that kind of movie magic moment where I was taking my tour around campus; it was the fall, everything was just beautiful on campus, and there were people walking everywhere, and everyone was so nice.
“It had that movie magic moment of, ‘This is where I want to go. This feels like home.’ That feeling has never gone away.”
A 2019 graduate of Lebanon (Tennessee) High School, Stranahan has had numerous leadership opportunities at UTC, including being a member of the Freshman Senate, an orientation leader and the facilitator of the Feminist Action Movement. She also served in a statewide office as lobbying director of the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature, also known as TISL.
Calling herself a fun and energetic person at heart—“I’m a very big extrovert. I love to talk to people. I love to run around and be loud,” she said—Stranahan cited her time in the Center for Women and Gender Equity’s Women’s Leadership Academy as helping bring out her leadership side.
She rose to chair of the Coalition Advocating for Student Empowerment, the executive leadership board that creates and organizes programs for the Center.
“When I came to college, I would say I was insecure in my leadership abilities,” she said. “Being a female interested in leadership things, you have a weird mindset about it; you feel lesser to some of your peers or other women who seem to have a stronger passion or stronger abilities in leadership.
“That’s what the Women’s Leadership Academy is all about; it’s very important to embrace all different forms of leadership. You don’t have to view yourself as an exceptional leader to come to this. You just talk about how you feel about leadership and what inspires you to make social change.”
Sara Peters, director of the Center for Women and Gender Equity, said that while “Julia thinks she’s not a great leader, Julia just innately is a great leader.”
“She draws people to her and has a certain kindness; people enjoy being around her,” Peters said. “She is our facilitator for the Feminist Action Movement and it’s funny to watch how the students respond to her. She says one word and everybody stops and listens to what she has to say because they know it’s going to be good.
“She’s that person and I think she doesn’t understand that she’s that person—but all of us here know that she’s that person. She’s been spectacular at getting things done.”
As a member of the UTC freshman class of 2019-2020, Stranahan vividly recalls the pre-COVID-19 days of being a wide-eyed first-year student—only to see the college experience come to a grinding halt.
Her position as an orientation leader the last two years has given her a unique perspective on college life after the pandemic.
“COVID threw a wrench in how I imagined my college career going,” she said. “I feel like I had a full year of college pre-COVID even though it cut into that second semester, but I’m glad that I got what I imagined to be a true college experience at first.
“I was very interested in how it would go in the post-COVID world. Sophomore year was very interesting and very online, but I think UTC was one of the better schools in getting people to remain engaged.”
She said the in-person orientation sessions UTC held last summer were significant to her and the other orientation leaders who started college that year.
“I think UTC did a great job of getting us back to how it was pre-COVID,” she said. “Remembering that first semester freshman year, it was the college experience I imagined it to be. Now I am here in my last semester of senior year and it feels like that again, doing full in-person events and having a lot of fun. It feels very full circle.”
Interestingly enough, it was during Stranahan’s online sophomore year when she joined the UTC TISL team. TISL is a statewide competition in which college students from across the state come together for a mock forum to learn how government works, exchange ideas and express opinions.
Stranahan said she was trying to figure out the academic path that best suited her; during a period of trying “a bunch of classes,” she ended up majoring in political science for one semester “because I thought it would be interesting. That’s what got me involved in TISL.”
While the major didn’t stick long-term, the involvement with the organization did.
“I really enjoyed TISL,” she said, “and what made it worth it and felt rewarding to me were all the people I met. I love having a network of women leaders, and TISL helped me grow that network of women that stick up for each other. TISL has done a great job connecting me with people I otherwise would not have met.”
One of those people is Maya Ring, a December 2022 graduate of Rhodes College in Memphis. Ring and Stranahan first crossed paths as members of the TISL executive council, with Ring being speaker pro tempore of the senate.
“What stood out to me was before Julia’s tenure, lobbying at TISL didn’t function very well,” Ring said. “I saw first-hand how Julia worked with our then-elected governor for TISL, Matthew Kenny; they revamped the entire lobbying program, and she instituted some great changes which made it much more structured and realistic to how lobbying works in the real world.”
Ring is now a project manager at Epic—a Madison, Wisconsin-based software development company in the healthcare sector. She helped recruit Stranahan to Epic and Central Wisconsin.
“I’m not surprised that she doesn’t think she’s a natural-born leader, but she really is,” Ring said. “I’m excited to be able to work with her starting in June.
“There are a lot of young, fresh out of college people here. I think the average age is around 24 or 25, which I think is awesome, and it eases the entrance into a new culture in a new city in a comforting way.”
Said Stranahan, “I got my job offer in December, so I’ve been sitting on it for a while, but it was very nice to know what I’m going to do next.
“During my time here at UTC, I’ve learned a lot about being a leader, communicating effectively, facilitating conversation. That’s a skill greatly valued in a career like project management where you’re going to deal with many people you don’t know and have backgrounds different from you.”