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'I have to own who I am' | UT's first Black woman student president leaving behind legacy, on and off campus

Jones had no idea how big of a task she'd be facing as the student body president, leading the school through a pandemic and racial injustice movements.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Last year, University of Tennessee students elected the university's first-ever Black woman as the student body president — Karmen Jones. 

At the time, Jones had no idea how big of a task she'd be facing. As the student president, she led the school through the COVID-19 pandemic and several racial injustice movements that engulfed communities across the U.S.

She graduates next week and will leave behind important changes.  

"I don't think students are scared to speak up now, and I think that's been missing for a long time," said Jones. "This was the most intense amount of pressure I think I've ever felt in my life."

She only had one year as the student body president to make a difference and help the campus community.

As the first Black woman in that position, she focused on diversity and inclusion from the start. However, she said that being the first Black woman in the position came with its challenges.

Credit: Karmen Jones

"I did deal with a lot of doubt, imposter syndrome, a lot of internalized racism which was how Black can you be in this space," she said.

That understanding helped her lead students through the racial injustice seen nationwide. Students protested numerous times on campus for justice and equality.

She spent countless hours helping recreate the volunteer experience amid the pandemic and worked with county leaders on a COVID-19 advisory committee. 

"We were more opinionated, vocal about how we felt and I think that's something SGA had been missing for the first 100 years," she said. "I think they’re more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about things we’d typically shy away from."

Within the Student Government Association, she said a necessary cultural shift happened — giving minority voices a chance to make a change. 

Credit: Karmen Jones

Because of it, she was able to change the student code to address discrimination and harassment on campus. She also worked to make sure diversity and inclusion were added to the school's overall values.

As she takes her final steps on Rocky Top as a student, she also said that she will remember her impact and who she's become. 

"That was the biggest lesson," she said. "I have to own who I am, my Blackness, my womanhood."

After Jones graduates next week, her position will be held by another woman for the upcoming school year. 

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