Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Project Excellence Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders at the University of Tennessee

“This is a passion, a deep, deep calling, for me to do this,” -Kimberly R. Hill on Project Excellence.

By Vanessa Slay, CEHHS Student Reporter, Class of 2024

Darrius Jackson works on a project on his computer in a library setting. Darius has dark skin and dark hair. He is wearing glasses, orange t-shirt and a sweater.

Darrius Jackson

“I never thought I would be there; I always thought it wasn’t for me,” Darrius Jackson says in an interview with the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Jackson is one of three Austin-East Magnet High School students who received full-ride scholarships to UT through Project Excellence and the schools’ Flagship partnership.

“Opportunity and diversity,” says Kimberly Hill, a doctoral candidate in Higher Education Administration, director of Project Excellence and Community Engagement Coordinator. “Students who come from flagship schools have such a mixed talent that is sometimes overlooked, and a program like Project Excellence puts a spotlight on those students who have immense talent, are extremely resilient, and are creative thinkers. It allows them to shine and arrive on college campuses prepared, ready to lead, and not just be spectators.”

Portrait photo of Kimberly Hill outside of Claxton Education Building on the UT Campus

Kimberly R. Hill

Hill calls the development of Project Excellence a “labor of love” amongst herself and the multiple faculty members and departments who lent their support. Noting her time working with Karen Boyd, a Professor of Practice, Director of Undergraduate Education, and Program Coordinator for Undergraduate Leadership studies in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS) department at UT, they noticed a general lack of diversity in the students who were applying for the ELPS program. They spent time building strategies to increase diversity in ELPS when Hill began to think bigger.

How can you inform students of ELPS before they set foot on campus? While other programs existed, such as Project Grad and Upward Bound, Hill believed there needed to be a specialized pre-college program at CEHHS. Boyd agreed and took the initiative to spread the idea across campus.

In time the program was launched under ELPS and after seeing the tremendous success of the second cohort of students and with great belief in the importance of the program, Ellen McIntyre, Dean of CEHHS, made it a part of the whole of CEHHS.

Including Project Excellence in CEHHS creates an even more fantastic opportunity for students.

A group of Project Excellence students poses for a picture in front of an orange background with orange balloons on each side. There are three male and one non-binary students in the picture, along with Kimberly Hill and a teacher. All persons in the photo have dark skin and dark hair.

Recent Project Excellence Graduates Celebrate at Knoxville’s Austin-East High School in February, 2023

The Project Excellence program currently takes up to 20 high school juniors and seniors at Austin-East and prepares them for college. Over the course of 10 to 15 weeks, junior students are aided and taught by instructors from the university and other community leaders. “This is not just content we are teaching out of a textbook,” says Hill. “These students are being taught by actual community leaders and getting real-life experiences, examples, and lessons from real-life leaders.”

The 11th-grade students receive a certificate and experience that helps with self-efficacy, time management, and communication with instructors.

As the students progress into their senior year, they are also offered the opportunity to apply for a credited program in which they can earn up to 5 hours in undergraduate leadership studies classes. These classes provided at UT are the same classes that leadership minors take, ELPS 201 and 211. Students in these classes acquire leadership skills, principles, and engagement skills for use in the community; the credits can be applied toward a minor in Leadership Studies at UT, but students are not required to pursue a degree in ELPS.

Hill notes that this past December, the seniors in the program spearheaded a community discussion based on youth mental health and are in the process of planning a city-wide mental health summit focused on the youths in the Knoxville area. These students realized how important it is for them, their current classmates, and future classmates to arrive on campus emotionally healthy and how to scout resources.

“Some of these students are very strategic thinkers; they realize they don’t have to be in the front to lead, some of them are behind the scenes planning, some of them are ‘includers,’ rallying the troops,” Hill comments on the students.

Current UT student majoring in Journalism and Electronic/Creative Media and former Project Excellence student Kyniya Hutchinson recalls her experience: “The most important lesson I learned was how to use my strengths and weaknesses to my advantage. I discovered how your values affect your ability to lead.”

Hutchinson says that she was interested in Project Excellence because “it was a great way to dip my toe into college while also learning how to develop something I was already doing in my academic career…It demonstrated to me that I could learn and gain new experiences while also preparing me for the next chapter of my life, college.”

She’d also like to encourage the next class entering the Project Excellence program to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way, identify their values and stay true to themselves, but to understand that they will change, learn, and grow. “Find the light to your torch and never let it go out as you light your way to graduation.”

While Hill is piloting this program at Austin-East, she aims to open it to all of the university’s flagship schools and let it grow into a state-wide standard. “Dreaming bigger, we envision this being a national program,” Hill hopes. Some evidence of this is already spreading into another part of UT’s CEHHS in the Nutrition Department as they launch their first pre-college program in the Summer of 2023.

While not all students who participate in Project Excellence go on to attend the university,” They are blossoming and bringing their peers along with them,” said Hill. She comments on one student who chose to go to college out of state and became President of the Student Body as a Freshman.

Throughout Knoxville, several former students are doing their best to make impacts in the community, serving on advisory boards across the city.

Hill would also like to thank several faculty members and community members who were essential in the advancement and development of the program: Tyvi Smalls, the Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Engagement, and Javiette Samuels, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement and Director of Community Engagement and Outreach, Kristina Gordon, an Associate Dean, Academic Affairs and Engagement & Director, Tammi Campbell, Austin-East Magnet High School Principal, Tanisha Fitzgerald-Baker, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager at Knoxville Utilities Board, Pastor Daryl Arnold of Overcoming Believers Church, and the numerous instructors in the ELPS program who give their time to instruct these rising leaders.

If you would like to contribute time or resources to Project Excellence, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kimberly R. Hill at or call 865-806-8400.

You can also watch a video about Darrius Jackson’s surprise admission to UT Knoxville here.