Five years in the past, KoJak Wells was within the stockroom of a Dollar General Store pushing apart storage containers to make room for a small picnic desk and two plastic crates the place he and his fiancée would sit to eat the double-decker fast-food tacos she’d convey for his or her makeshift lunch dates.

“We couldn’t afford real dates back then,” says Wells, a switch pupil who’s days away from incomes his bachelor’s diploma in enterprise administration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

At the time, Wells was a shift supervisor at Dollar General and made extra cash substitute instructing and taking part in piano at three space church buildings. His fiancée, Kayla Bishop, now a junior finding out economics at UT, labored two jobs and was pregnant with their first daughter, Kai, now 4 years previous. The household welcomed their second daughter, Koi, two years later.

“I don’t know why, but I didn’t ever think about college before that,” Wells says. “I just kept thinking, ‘Work more jobs, work longer hours.’ I had no idea what was out there for me. It’s like there was this whole other level, and I was just settling in the gap that kept me from it.”

KoJak Wells along with his daughter Koi and fiancée Kayla Bishop.

With a household to assist, Wells altered course.

He signed up for courses at Pellissippi State Community College, and for 3 years he hardly blinked. He tutored math and enterprise, served as pupil physique president, and was elected chair of the statewide government advisory board for faculty and college pupil physique presidents. By the time he acquired his affiliate’s diploma, he had accrued 3 times the service–studying hours required to graduate with a medallion of distinction.

Well’s subsequent step took him to UT’s Haslam College of Business. It is there that his desires for the longer term started to take form—for him, his household, and the neighborhood he now seeks to succeed in with a message about the best way schooling can rework lives.

“Haslam’s leadership courses shaped me into a leader,” says Wells, who will develop into the primary in his household to earn a four-year diploma when he crosses the stage at Thompson-Boling Arena on November 22. “And not just the leader I am today. They’re shaping me into the stronger, more engaged leader I can become in the future.”

Wells, the oldest of six siblings, was born with potential in his blood. His great-grandmother Gloria Garner was one of many Knoxville Area Urban League’s first workers, a revered civil rights determine with a road within the Lonsdale neighborhood named in her honor. At Apostolic Christian School, which Wells attended by means of highschool, he positioned in nationwide science competitions and excelled in monitor and piano. But it took years earlier than he felt the motivation to pursue one thing higher for himself. Fatherhood finally lit that fireplace.

“My family is the only thing that keeps me going,” Wells says. “They’ve watched every step of this journey. When I’ve been sick and stressing myself out to make a 4.0, Kayla’s been the one who would say, ‘Baby, it’s not going to be much longer now. We’re going to make it.’”

The Wells family walking in the park
The Wells household.

Ryan Farley, medical assistant professor of finance, had Wells in his 400-level funding and portfolio administration course within the fall of 2019 and knew in a short time there was one thing particular about him.

“It’s not just charisma,” Farley says. “It is charisma matched with hard work and technical skills that sets him apart.”

Farley prompt that Wells apply for Torch Funds, a program he oversees that permits finance college students to handle a $3 million portfolio of securities donated by beneficiant alumni. For the previous two semesters, Wells has served as an funding analyst and portfolio supervisor for the Carroll Funds, a $600,000 portfolio belonging to alumnus Larry Carroll (’78), a fellow first-generation school graduate and the founder and CEO of Carroll Financial Associates.

Earlier this month, throughout a ultimate presentation to donors and members of Torch Fund Advisory Board, Wells was so spectacular that two people requested for knowledgeable introduction. Farley wasn’t stunned.

“Like anything in life, a big differentiator between those who are successful and those who don’t meet their goals is seeing the challenges on your plate as an opportunity to prove you belong where you are,” Farley says. “It’s tough to go to school when you have kids. It’s hard to be a first-gen student when you don’t have exposure to the world some of your classmates do. Sometimes you only get one chance, and KoJak knows that. It’s what motivates him.”

In the subsequent few months, Wells will transfer along with his household to Cincinnati to start a place as a monetary model supervisor for Procter & Gamble, among the many largest shopper items corporations on the earth.

KoJak Wells in his cap and gown

“KoJak embodies what our land-grant mission was designed to do. It’s to give people access to opportunities,” says Tyvi Small, UT’s vice chancellor for variety and engagement.

He had met Wells when the 2 labored collectively to safe internships for at-risk youth by means of Project Grad in 2018, whereas Wells was nonetheless at Pellissippi. Recognizing his potential, Small says, he “put on the full-court press” to recruit Wells to UT.

“We do the work to support our students and advocate for them so they get to have moments like he does right now,” Small says.

Wells works to observe Small’s instance of mentorship and advocacy. He has helped elevate funds and serves as a board member for the Zaevian Dobson Foundation, volunteered as a volleyball coach at Austin-East High School, and spoken concerning the dangers affecting youth in Knoxville and the worth of schooling to create new alternatives in folks’s lives.

Wells applies these classes in his circle of relatives, too. After he graduated from Pellissippi, his fiancée enrolled there and have become the primary in her household to earn an affiliate’s diploma. She hopes to graduate from UT subsequent 12 months along with her bachelor’s diploma. When the couple research collectively at evening, their daughters sit beside them studying—a household that research collectively succeeds collectively, Wells believes.

“Our kids know how important it is to learn and go to school,” says Bishop, who’s eight months pregnant with the couple’s third daughter. “We’ve been in school the entire time they’ve been alive.”

That hole Wells imagined—the one which separated him from the life he wished—manifests in several methods. It is the hole of 5 years. It is the hole from single man to accomplice and mum or dad. It is 2 pictures: certainly one of Wells in a Dollar General stockroom, the opposite of him in a cap and robe turning into the primary in his household—although probably not the final—to develop into a school graduate.

“Being a Volunteer taught me that the limits we place on our lives are solely limited to the goals we set,” Wells says. “That’s why Vols dream big.”



Brian Canever (865-974-0937,