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40 Under 40 Recipient Rachel Rui Found Family and Destiny at UT

Rachel Rui never expected a small city in East Tennessee to become her home sweet home, but that’s exactly what happened. As she put it, “we bloom where we are planted” and that’s exactly what she did at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—and now she is being recognized for all she has done for the university and community by being named on the distinguished 2023 Volunteer 40 under 40 list.

Her journey from China to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was instigated when her then-boyfriend and eventual husband, Harrison Pang, wanted to pursue his master’s degree in the United States. She decided to do the same, and they settled on UT after both were offered good scholarships. 

From the moment they stepped on Tennessee soil, the couple were treated with the kind of hospitality that would endear Rui to the city and the people here. Peter Gross, former director of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, borrowed a pickup truck and retrieved them—and a substantial amount of luggage, from Tyson McGhee Airport close to midnight before driving them to Golf Range, an international student’s apartment that he generously offered to the couple to stay for free until their housing was ready.

That stuck with Rui, and she’s been paying it forward ever since by making international students welcome in her own home and at the university. 

Besides that welcoming Volunteer spirit, Rui also reveled in the quality of education she received as a master’s student at the College of Communication and Information. 

“At CCI, I felt like I got the best professors and best cohort, and I remembered when I entered it was such a diverse group; I had friends from Croatia, Macedonia, all these places all over the world, and we got together and talked about all the different media systems around the world, and how different it is from place to place. I was introduced to different and diverse perspectives at CCI. It was such a supportive cohort and faculty,” she said. “My experience at CCI, to sum it up, is really a growing family. They know me, I know them, and whenever people mention that they are alumni or somehow associated with CCI, it just brings this overwhelming emotion of warmth and welcoming to my body, it’s a very special place to me.”

She had worked as broadcast journalist at the Associated Press TV News in Beijing, and was certain her future was on the screen and her master’s also had a concentration in journalism. But the skills she acquired through school and her career would end up serving her much differently than she ever anticipated.

Before finishing her master’s, she began working as the recruiting, communications, and development coordinator for the UT Department of Chemistry, and her career began to grow from there. It was during this time that she began to pursue her PhD at CCI, at the encouragement of former JEM Professor Sam Swan.

“Sam Swan was my advisor for both my master’s degree and PhD degree. He really encouraged me to pursue a PhD degree because I didn’t know if I had what it takes. I didn’t know if I should go directly into industry and pursue a job, and if I even qualified. He encouraged and supported me through that,” she said. 

After graduating with her doctorate in 2014 and working a few more years at the Department of Chemistry, Rui continued to move up in the university and became assistant to the university’s chancellor.

“They were specifically looking for somebody who had a communication background and would be able to help with the chancellor’s office’s communications. Dr. Swan sent it to me and said, ‘I think this would be good for you.’ So I took the opportunity and worked with three chancellors,” Rui said.

As her profile on campus rose and her network grew, the next door of her career opened to become director of the Office of Communications at the Center for Global Engagement, which eventually expanded to include a dual role as the center’s inaugural director for the Office of Asia Engagement. These roles fill her time with everything from external and internal communications for the center, to developing engagement and programs with partners in Asia. 

As exciting as the trajectory of her career has been, it hasn’t come without personal challenges. In 2019, her husband, Harrison, died. She has since established the Rachel Rui and Harrison Pang International Excellence Endowment to honor his memory and to provide undergraduate scholarships or graduate fellowships for students to study abroad, and to support UT’s international recruitment efforts. While it has been hard to come back from such a loss, it has helped to have the people who have become her friends and family surrounding and supporting her. Outside of UT, she has made strong connections in the community by establishing the East Tennessee Chinese/Chinese American Care community organization and acting as director of marketing and communications for the Knoxville Asian Festival.

My passion with the community and community work is so ingrained in the Volunteer identity. I feel very humbled and very honored to be recognized by the 40 under 40. I don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary. I did what anyone who has gone through UT and been supported by the UT family would do,” Rui said.