Little did Hayleigh Weissenbach know that an initiative she began during her University of Tennessee at Chattanooga undergraduate days would change her career path.
In the fall of 2016, Weissenbach—now a campus coordinator for the UTC Mosaic program—came to the University to play softball and study criminal justice.
She was pretty successful at both, receiving two degrees—a bachelor’s in criminal justice (with a minor in psychology) in 2020 and a master’s in criminal justice in 2022—while batting .281 in 210 overall games for the Mocs softball team with 33 doubles, seven triples, six homers and 78 RBI. The outfielder’s career highlights included being a three-time member of the All-Southern Conference Academic Team.
The youngest of five siblings, she was the third Weissenbach to leave home to play college softball. She came to East Tennessee from her hometown of Moreno Valley, California, to see another part of the country—following in the footsteps of older sisters Ashley (who pitched for Hampton University in Virginia) and Shelby (who played for Drury University in Springfield, Missouri).
“My sisters, we all joke about how my sister Ashley made the path, my sister Shelby paved the path and then I swept the path,” she said. “They both encouraged me to go out of state and as far away and get a different experience—get different cultures and try and be a part of something.”
Their little sister is still in Chattanooga due to being a part of something.
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As a student-athlete, Weissenbach said she noticed many people on campus “used the ‘R word’—retarded—as just slang all the time and it made me really uncomfortable.”
She learned about the negative implication of the “R word” during her high school days in California, where she was a member of Martin Luther King High School’s Peers Always Working Side by Side (PAWSS)—a program focused on integrating students who had a spectrum of disabilities.
“PAWSS was kind of a buddy program; it was connecting with these students and making sure they were having a holistic experience,” she said. “A lot of the students that I interacted with hated when people used that word because a lot of people have disabilities that are invisible; you’re hurting them when you say that word, and it’s used in a very negative connotation.
“The ‘R word’ doesn’t mean dumb or stupid; if you mean to say, ‘Oh, that was so lame,’ then say it’s lame. Lame and the ‘R word’ are not the same.”
Weissenbach said she was bothered by how many people tossed the word around casually, even in her social circle. Instead of doing nothing, “I was encouraged to move forward and try and do a little movement on campus to get people to understand that the word is inappropriate.”
She reached out to the University’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) with the idea of creating a “Stop the R Word” campaign.
“Immediately when I mentioned it to the DRC, they helped me orchestrate a movement to get people involved,” she recalled.
Dr. Michelle Rigler, executive director of the DRC and the Mosaic program, said that while it wasn’t unusual for a student to contact her office, it was atypical coming from a student-athlete.
“Not that athletes don’t do that kind of thing, but that’s the first time an athlete had ever approached me to want to do a ‘Stop the R Word’ type of campaign,” said Rigler, who came to UTC in September 2004. “I was absolutely thrilled at the way she carried it out.
“She didn’t just start out doing something and then drop the ball; she went from start to finish and knocked it out of the park—and she involved other athletes. It was the first time athletics had been so involved in our work. Now we partner in a lot of other things together.”
UTC softball coach Frank Reed wasn’t surprised that Weissenbach took such a leadership role in the initiative.
“She definitely fills that bill of being someone who didn’t just sit back,” Reed said. “You get to be a leader by being a voice and letting people know that you have beliefs and concerns—and those are the things you want to exemplify through what you do.
“One of the things I tell our athletes is that you can tell people what you’re going to do if you want them to follow you—but you’ve got to be able to live up to it. You can’t talk it and not walk it. I think she’s an example of somebody that talks and then walks it.”
The “Stop the R Word” campaign allowed Weissenbach to learn more about the DRC. After discovering Mosaic, a program developed to support the needs of degree-seeking UTC students on the autism spectrum, she began working with the DRC as a student mentor.
“The majority of the staff in Mosaic started out as mentors,” Rigler said, “and their career trajectory changed when they started working in that program. It’s just a really special program—and I don’t like using that word ‘special’ all the time—but it’s special in terms of once you’re connected with it, you’re really connected with it and the students and with the work that we do.”
Said Weissenbach, “When I first got connected with the DRC and began working with the people there, they were like, ‘You should become a mentor for Mosaic.’ I was immediately hooked.”
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