Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations alumnus Matthew (Matt) Dirsa was a man of many interests—he loved outdoor activities such as rock climbing, golf, and snowboarding, but he and his friends also taught themselves how to knit stocking caps and he trained to be a sushi chef.
“He wasn’t afraid to try anything and when he passed, it was amazing the number of people who contacted me. I had no idea he knew that many people, he was a special man,” said Melinda Gathers, Dirsa’s mother.
Dirsa had worked in advertising positions in New York and China when he passed away in May 2019, and Gathers had felt there should be more done to remember her son. She was grateful to her brother and his wife, David and Lisa Jones, and family for purchasing a bench in Farragut, Tenn. dedicated to Dirsa, but she felt there was something else that could be done. About 18 months after he was gone, Mark Geller, the College of Communications and Information’s director of development, gave Gathers a call and asked if the family would be interested in a scholarship in Dirsa’s name. Gathers said the College had just found out about Dirsa’s death and called shortly thereafter about establishing a scholarship.
“I thought about a scholarship but it seemed to me there was so much involved in getting it started. So I said yes and UT just made it so easy to get it going, they did it so quickly,” Gathers said, noting that there is both a Matthew Dirsa Memorial Scholarship and a Matthew Dirsa Memorial Award.
The scholarship and award, which was established and funded by the Joneses, Gathers, and her husband, Larry Gathers, are given to students who embody the Volunteer Spirit, just as Dirsa did. Students who receive these honors do so by serving other students, faculty, student organizations, and the Tombras School of ADPR and UT, as well as by demonstrating a passion for a future career in a media-related field.
“It is only fitting that we pay tribute to the impact Matt Dirsa made on the Tombras School by giving unique opportunities to our exceptional students in his honor,” said Beth Foster, Director of the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations. “The graciousness of Matt’s family has enabled the Tombras School to offer students’ academic and professional opportunities they would not otherwise have had; it has positioned them to be successful in the industry, as was the Scholarship’s namesake.”
“Matt was a wonderful student and an even better alumnus. He embodied the Vol for Life spirit and was always willing to give back to our school and students. With the generosity of the endowed scholarship created by his family, Matt’s legacy will continue to live out for years to come,” said ADPR Associate Professor Courtney Childers, who was integral in getting the scholarship and award established at the school and has become close to the Gathers and the entire family throughout the process.
For Gathers, the scholarship is much more than just an opportunity to give students a financial boost—she also enjoys getting to know young people who are heading into careers similar to her son’s.
“We love to be around young people so we decided every now and then to get together and go eat so we could keep up with what they’re doing and they’re the sweetest ever,” Melinda said of Catron and Hartman. “We just met the new recipients for this school year and they’re lovely people and we plan on doing the same thing.”
Kendrick Catron – 2021 Matthew Dirsa Memorial Scholarship
When Catron was given the Matt Dirsa Memorial Scholarship, it brought a dream to fruition: she was able to attend the portfolio school The Creative Circus in the summer of 2021. There, she learned all about creating ads in Photoshop, establishing a personal brand, made a website for herself, and learned photography.
“I wasn’t going to be able to afford to go if a miracle didn’t happen and Dr. Childers told me, ‘Hey, you got this scholarship.’ and I broke down,” Catron said.
She always knew she’d land in a creative field, though initially her eye was on graphic design. But after researching the field, Catron decided she’d have more career options and flexibility if she went into advertising. She worked her way through her four years at UT, putting in 40 hours a week at the Publix near campus. Now that graduation is just a few days away, everything is feeling a bit surreal for the soon-to-be alum.
“I’ve loved it here, I’ve gotten really close with Dr. Childers and Dr. Foster, I think that the college feels like home a little bit,” she said.
Catron has also appreciated that Gathers reached out to chat with her and to meet, and she discovered she has a lot in common with Dirsa. With The Creative Circus program and everything she’s learned at ADPR, she said she feels well-prepared to enter the world of advertising.
Kate Hartman – 2021 Matthew Dirsa Memorial Award
Hartman is well-known by ADPR faculty and staff for hanging around their offices and making sure to pop in and say hi to anyone in that day. She’s bright and enthusiastic, and gives a lot of credit to Childers and Foster, as well as ADPR’s administrative assistant, Lauren Ziegler, for having such a great experience at the school.
“Those three women truly care about their students and it’s so evident in everything they do, I could go on and on. They absolutely changed the path of my career and where I’m going in life,” Hartman said, adding that Childers’ Advertising Principles class is what hooked her into her career path.
Hartman came to UT as a biochemistry and molecular biology major before soon realizing that, just because she was good at those courses, didn’t mean it was what she actually wanted to do. A visit to UT’s Center for Career Development & Academic Exploration helped sway her towards ADPR and she’s never looked back.
She said she was so honored to receive the scholarship and that getting to know the Gathers has been an unexpected bonus.
“They’re phenomenal people and I’ve absolutely loved getting to know them. When my parents come in for graduation, we’ll all get brunch together, so I’m excited,” she said.
Mazie Dee – 2022 Matthew Dirsa Memorial Scholarship
Dee, like Hartman, thought she wanted to go into a STEM field when she first arrived at UT. She always enjoyed biology and made that her major, but it became evident after her first semester she wasn’t interested in the jobs one would get with a biology major.
“So I opened up the UT catalog and I began researching and I landed on advertising,” she said.
Dee took an introduction class from Foster and fell head over heels in love with public relations. She’ll be graduating in a year and doesn’t yet know exactly the type of jobs she’ll be applying for, but she’s excited about the opportunities she knows she’ll have after getting an ADPR degree from UT.
She said she’s grateful for the money from the award because she’s been spending about $1,000 out of pocket each semester after using her scholarships and federal loans. It felt like something meant to be, as now she won’t have to worry about those out-of-pocket funds for her senior year.
Dee and Trapp were able to meet the Gathers and some of their family at the park bench in Farragut, which Dee said was a lovely experience. It wasn’t long after that when the Gathers got in touch with the rising senior to plan a brunch.
“I’m excited not just about receiving this scholarship, but also about getting to establish a relationship with Matt’s family,” she said.
Solomon Trapp – 2022 Matthew Dirsa Memorial Award
While Trapp is graduating this year, he plans on staying at CCI to complete the 4+1 ADPR master’s concentration, where his focus will be on government and political public relations. He initially came to UT as a pre-med student, but lost the spark for that career track and began looking for a new one.
“So I took the Public Relations Principles class from Beth Foster, the last class she taught before she was promoted, and I fell in love with that class, it changed me. I knew going forward that it was what I wanted to do. This is my calling in life. It was scary at first, I was in the middle of a transition and I was hesitant, but once I got that initial spark, it continues to burn today,” he said.
Trapp said his experience at ADPR has been wonderful, especially because he’s had a lot of opportunities to connect with faculty and other students in the program.
“The faculty, the professors, everybody has a genuine interest in your success. Knowing they have my best interests at heart meant the most to me, and I knew I could come to them with anything and that changes the whole dynamic of being in college,” he said.