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Forging a Path to Undergraduate Research

Written by Miranda lee

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a Tennessee Volunteer. However, this dream seemed impossible because I was raised in a family where most members did not graduate high school or value education. Early on I realized if I wanted to continue learning after receiving my diploma, I would need guidance that could not come from my loved ones. With college on my mind, I developed a close relationship with my high school counselor. It was in her office that I found the resources needed to create a plan aimed at attending the University of Tennessee.

I started my academic journey by taking advantage of free tuition offered at the local community college in Chattanooga. After finishing my Associates of Science, it was finally time for me to move to Knoxville and fulfill my goal of studying at one of the top universities in the state. Prior to making this transition, I took some time to reflect on my hard work and accomplishments as a first-generation college student. During this time, I vowed that I would continue to make education my priority. In order to honor this, I decided that I no longer just wanted to attend UTK, I wanted to get as much out of the experience as possible in order to create a better version of myself. Seeking personal development and a place to belong at UTK, I found the Honors & Scholars website. After emailing back and forth with Ms Hunter, associate director of admissions, I was encouraged to apply for the 1794 Scholars Program. I believed that joining the program would allow me to build connections, present challenges for me to face head on, and link me with opportunities to continue advancing in my academic career.

Little did I know just how beneficial it would be once accepted. My favorite part of being a member of the 1794 Scholars Program is the weekly newsletter emailed to students connecting them with campus events and other opportunities to get involved. While reading the newsletter in the latter part of my first semester as a transfer student at UTK, I was drawn to a section promoting undergraduate involvement in research. A link was provided listing the fellowship opportunities for 1794 Scholars the following semester. The fellowship with the Department of Tourism particularly peaked my interest because of my love for all things travel. After reaching out to the professor leading the research, I was invited to interview for the fellowship position. During the interview I got a better understanding of the research topic and how the study was being conducted. Dr. Benjamin explained to me that she has always been intrigued with underrepresented groups in society and the issues they face as minorities. These personal interests made their way into her professional life as she began researching one particular marginalized group in the tourism industry: people with disabilities. The methods used in her research project was a combination of telephone interviews with tourism marketers and an in-depth content analysis of tourism brochures.

After better understanding how and why Dr. Benjamin felt propelled to conduct this research, I felt more confident in joining the team. I can honestly say I was thrilled when I was offered the fellowship position. I viewed the opportunity as a chance to learn how to conduct research in the academic world as well as developing a new perspective on tourism. Once I officially started working on the research project, Dr. Benjamin thoroughly explained my responsibilities and set expectations. During our first meeting as a team I was given multiple large reusable grocery bags filled with tourism brochures from states in the southeast United States. Each week I dedicated ten hours to combing through the tourism materials in search of language and photos pertaining to people with disabilities. My main contribution to the research was finishing the in-depth content analysis and quantifying the codebook we created.

Participating in the research project was eye opening because I gained awareness of the lack of inclusion for people with disabilities in the tourism industry. The issue at hand is now something I feel strongly about. I hope that our contribution to understanding the connection between disabled people and tourism creates future efforts for inclusion. Without meeting Dr. Benjamin, I still would be unaware of this issue many people around the world are facing and I would not have the desire to create some sort of change. Furthermore, without participating in this opportunity, I would not know my capability to balance multiple responsibilities. Being a full-time student, working part time, and taking on the fellowship position was not an easy task. There were many times that I felt over whelmed and spread thin. However, I made it work, and the mental benefits and confidence I reaped from doing so are indescribable. I am extremely thankful for the experience I had while participating in the 1794 Scholars Research Fellowship Program and I look forward seeing the results of the research project.