Carolyn Potlock, second from left, with her parents and son and her UT acceptance letter. From left: her father, Jay Potlock (’79); Carolyn; her son, Payton Potlock; and mother, Mary Kay Potlock.
Carolyn Potlock (’22) had dreamed of becoming a Volunteer ever since she was a little girl watching college football by her father’s side. Her father, Jay Potlock (’79) managed to transfer his VFL spirit to his daughter, and she clung to her hopes of one day attending his alma mater. Which she eventually did, though not as directly as she initially thought she would.
The Road to UT
A surprise pregnancy during her senior year of high school derailed Potlock’s plan to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville right after graduation. Then she applied, and was accepted, when her son was 2 years old, but by then she was active in a career and the timing just didn’t seem right. Potlock eventually earned an undergraduate degree through Colorado State University’s global program, but she never let go of her desire to one day attend UT. She even named her son Payton, after one of the College of Communication and Information’s high-profile alumni, Peyton Manning.
“I completed my bachelor of science degree in 2017 and was super excited, and at the end of that program I was kind of like, ‘OK, what now?’,” she said. “I am based in Atlanta, so from time to time, I would check UT to see what online degrees they had and what they were offering. I wanted my life to be fulfilled and to be a Vol.”
When CCI’s Master of Science in Communication and Information, Strategic and Digital Communication (SDC) concentration, was launched, Potlock saw the opportunity she had been waiting for all those years. She immediately reached out to the program and quickly applied and was accepted to start in spring 2021. She was overjoyed and couldn’t wait to share the news with her family, but managed to keep it under wraps for a special surprise announcement. She bought “Tennessee Dad” and “Tennessee Mom” shirts,UT decals, and printed out her acceptance letter and waited for Father’s Day to roll around. That’s when she presented her parents with the UT swag and her acceptance letter.
“I got in and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. It’s just kind of surreal that, even though my path was a little bit different and wasn’t the traditional way to complete a degree or go to school, I was still able to make that happen,” she said.
Heading for Graduation
Not only did she get into the program, but Potlock completed it in one-and-a-half years. The start of her first semester coincided with her being laid off from her job due to getting Covid and needing time to recover. So she zeroed in on her school work and made that her primary job until she was done in summer 2022.
Though she could have attended CCI’s commencement in spring 2022, as is an option for those who complete their graduate programs in the summer, Potlock didn’t want to tempt fate and opted to participate in the fall 2022 ceremony. Besides fulfilling her goal of graduating with a UT degree, walking in a graduation ceremony will be another first for Potlock, despite having earned her high school and bachelor’s degrees. She was on pregnancy bedrest during her high school graduation, and she had decided to not fly all the way out to Colorado for her undergraduate ceremony.
“I will definitely come to Knoxville and bring a crew of family and friends to celebrate with me, because it will definitely be one of the most special moments of my life,” she said.
Potlock isn’t the only one who caught the UT orange fever—her son, Payton, is a senior in high school and is hoping to be a third-generation Vol and to carry on the family tradition.
As far as family traditions go, Potlock is thinking about making a bit of a new one by following in her father’s footsteps yet again. The elder Potlock took Payton to UT’s competitive swimming camp a few years ago, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when Jay Potluck returned home, he was one Power T tattoo richer. While that tattoo was a big surprise to the family, Potlock said she plans to go to the same Knoxville tattoo shop where her father was inked to get her own UT-themed tattoo after graduation.
Potlock has more than just a degree to show for all her hard work—she recently landed a new job with Jack Morton Worldwide, a branding agency company that provides experiential marketing. Her background is in auto events, branding, and as a spokesmodel, so the combination of her experience and degrees provided a perfect set-up for her to get this job delivering a brand experience and creating live events for clients.
While achieving a lifelong dream and getting a new job has been exciting, Potlock said earning this degree also sets a good example for Payton.
“I was able to show my son that you should not ever let your dreams go, and if you work hard enough, you can make it happen,” she said.
The CCI Online Master’s Program
Potlock’s experience in the program provided her with insight into various areas of study she previously had no knowledge of, such as information architecture—which is how information is mapped and flows in interfaces, such as websites. When she first saw the required course, which is offered through the School of Information Sciences, Potlock wasn’t sure what architecture had to do with strategic digital communications. It ended up being her favorite class in the program.
“I’m really glad that was a part of the curriculum, it wasn’t something I would’ve picked on my own. With the degree being about digital communications, it makes sense to understand how people go through websites and also to understand what the user experience is,” she said.
Potlock had moments during the program where she was juggling being a parent and also dealing with some long-term effects of Covid. In those times, she was grateful that the program’s faculty were flexible and considered the needs of their students.
“They were so understanding and patient. They understood that the students in the program, we’re working professionals, we have kids, we’re in different time zones. I was dealing with a lot mentally, emotionally, and physically, and it wasn’t that I needed a sympathy card, but sometimes I would need to ask for more time. It was a good feeling to know they were working with you, and not against you,” she said.
While it’s a little bittersweet to be done as a student at UT (at least for now, she says teasingly) Potlock will always have reminders of the university; whether it be her son’s name, or he himself becoming a Volunteer, or her orange cat named Neyland, it’s not likely a day will go by without her thinking of her newest alma mater.