Breaking Ground 106 - The FUTURE is Now: Independence and Immersion at the University of Tennessee

by Randy Boyd, President, University of Tennessee System
Mr. Boyd, UT President, standing in his office wearing a suit, with a young man in a white collared shirt with the UT Vols logo, and UT Vols mask, and khakis.
Randy Boyd with president’s office intern Coulter

Higher education depends on independence and an immersive learning environment. Some of the greatest learning a person can experience comes through the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and trials and triumphs that occur in classrooms and living on campus.

The UT FUTURE inclusive education program at UT Knoxville places independence at the heart of its mission. Established in 2011, UT FUTURE helps young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities make a successful transition from high school to adult life.

I’ve seen the impact personally in Alex, Elise, Coulter, and Mikie as UT FUTURE developed their independence as young adults. Each of these students has served as an intern in the President’s Office. They have handled a variety of tasks including filing, making copies, taking notes at some of my meetings, and running various errands on campus. Most of them have had a job coach to help them with anything they may have problems with and to oversee them during their time here. 

a young Black woman, Ciara Armstrong, a UT FUTURE graduate in her graduation gown with a bright orange sash around her neck that says “FUTURE”. She is also wearing a graduation cap and tassel, and mask.
Ciara Armstrong, a UT FUTURE graduate

Admission into UT FUTURE is highly competitive. Prospective students must graduate from high school and submit an application, along with three recommendations about their vocational, academic, and social skills. Teachers and parents provide information on the student’s independence level. Then, applicants have interviews with four different committees, including one made up of current UT FUTURE students. There are typically more applicants than available spaces.  Twenty-one students were accepted for the 2020-21 academic year. UT Knoxville hopes to grow that pool to 25 for 2021-22. Students can graduate with a vocational certificate after two years or choose to stay up to four years.

I cannot be more proud of my university for modeling what it means to be inclusive, not exclusive. Talented UT FUTURE students have the opportunity to experience university life to the fullest. They get the support needed to access and participate in academics and campus life, including a new pilot residency program. They have access to classes like public speaking, sign language, chorus, history, food science, digital literacy, life planning and skills, and so much more. And the program could not be so successful without the roughly 80 UT Knoxville students who serve as mentors for FUTURE students. Mentors help with learning to clean, cook, and launder clothes. They may also be tutors or lunch and workout partners.

Programs like FUTURE are part of the reason this will be the greatest decade in UT history.

For more information on the UT FUTURE program, please visit

Randy Boyd is the 26th president of the University of Tennessee System, which includes campuses at Knoxville, Chattanooga, Martin, the Health Science Center in Memphis, and the Space Institute at Tullahoma. It also includes UT’s statewide institutes of agriculture and public service.

two young men walking outside on campus with masks on and backpacks. One is waving to someone off camera.