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Students Share Their Experiences as Big Ears Festival Ambassadors

By Vanessa Slay, CEHHS student news reporter, Class of 2023

“It was not all rainbows and sunshine,” says Junior Retail Hospitality and Tourism Management (RHTM) undergraduate Rosemarie Poplin.

Four student ambassadors to the Big Ears Festival sitting at a picnic table under a canopy. There are three female students and one male students. All have fair skin and the females have light brown/blonde hair and the male student has red hair.

Big Ears student Hospitality Ambassadors take a break from their duties.

Poplin and five other undergraduate RHTM students were the first cohorts of student hospitality ambassadors for the annual Big Ears Festival held in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee; as with any program just starting out, there are bound to be things that go differently than planned or expected.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students got to experience working in several crucial positions spanning over the course of a week leading up to and during the festival: two students worked in Artist Transportation and Coordination, two in Artist Hospitality, one in VIP Donor Relations, and one student as a jack of all trades/operations.

While each student could apply for their specific job during Big Ears, the majority felt they were expecting a much different experience than they received; however, they made the best of each day and gave their all.

Gallatin, Tennessee native and Sophomore Paul Vaughn, who worked in Artist Transportation and Coordination, noted that while his job kept him mostly inside during the festival updating spreadsheets and checking flight statuses, there is always a silver lining to every experience. “Don’t be afraid to try something new. I can now officially say I’ve worked at a music festival, and this experience gives me a connection to other music festivals and industry workers,” says Vaughn. “I also enjoyed being and working downtown. Downtown Knoxville is a vibrant and unique place to be.”

Another Junior in the program, Maria Gilbert, who worked as the jack of all trades/operations, notes of her experience “that no one truly is an expert and everyone has something to learn, but seeing the fruits of my labor and getting an inside look on the operations that keep the festival running was rewarding.”

“Operations people know what I mean when I say it is like you are in a pinball machine being bounced back and forth from task to task at all times. It gets exhausting, but if they didn’t have us, then nothing would run smoothly!” Gilbert recalls.

While walking an average of 10 miles a day was not what Junior Dani Netherland expected of working in Artist Hospitality, “getting to meet so many different people with experiences from all over was enlightening.”

“Big Ears is completely different from any other music festival you’ll ever work,” Netherland recalls hearing her mentor during the festival said. “It’s really inspiring to realize that while all of these people who work at some of the biggest festivals around the country could be anywhere else, they love Big Ears so much that they keep returning year after year. It’s not just another job to them.”

“I learned that nothing ever goes as planned; expect the unexpected, and a smile goes a long way,” says Junior RHTM student Helen Johnson. “Working on the festival’s VIP and Donor Affairs side was so exciting and fun! I loved getting to know the donors over good food and music.”

Stefanie Benjamin, an associate professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, “worked on solidifying a partnership with Big Ears, ” allowing these students to volunteer their time at the festival.

“You also learn that there are parts to putting on these festivals and events that are boring and exhausting, but you are doing it. That’s the good and the bad. You want this type of experience, but it’s not all sipping champagne. It is being flexible and problem-solving,” says Benjamin.

Each of the student ambassadors held similar sentiments of Senior Sydney Hughes’s hopes for the next group of ambassadors: “I would tell the next group of ambassadors to keep their heads held high, follow their gut, do what makes you happy, and don’t let others put you down.”

While the experience may have been flawed, each student recognized that with each year that the program keeps running, the experience will get better and more refined and that being a student hospitality ambassador for “one of the world’s greatest music bashes” is a unique privilege for UT students.

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