Education changes lives.
For Debbie Ingram, that’s not just a catchy slogan but a personal cause. With three degrees–two of them from UT–she believes it’s the responsibility of the educated to encourage, to mentor, to tutor, to do whatever it takes to help others discover the transformational experience that is education.
That will be her focus starting in July when she becomes president of the UT National Alumni Association.
“I’m going to use the theme ‘share your stories.’ Tennessee is renowned for storytelling. Our state faces such challenges with low college and high-school graduation rates that I believe we alumni need to share stories about how education changed our lives.”
Ingram cites the example of her grandmother, who, with just an 8th-grade education and eight children, was abandoned by her husband. “Seven of the eight children went to college, and six earned degrees. Five went on to receive graduate degrees, and two of them earned doctorates. Of the sixteen grandchildren, fourteen have college degrees and five of the fourteen have doctorates. If others in your family complete college, you’re more likely to, as well. We must change a generation of Tennessee families.”
She believes education not only helps provide economic stability but also a better quality of life. “We have to get the message out that education matters,” the Ooltewah, Tennessee, resident says. “I’m going to encourage alumni groups to share their stories by volunteering with youth, helping at career fairs, and speaking to groups at high schools.
“I went to Bradley County High School recently with Chancellor Roger Brown of UT Chattanooga. We talked about how important it is to go to college. It was the first time they’d had a chancellor or president talk to them. I talked about my career as a physical therapist, and afterward some of the students said they’d like to be physical therapists, but they didn’t know how and didn’t know who to talk to.
“I said, ‘You know me. I’ll help you.'”
And if you’re not good at connecting person-to-person, Ingram’s got a role for you too: endow a scholarship. “Everybody can do something,” she says.
As the director of clinical education for physical therapy doctoral students at UT Chattanooga, Ingram is the first physical therapist and first faculty member ever to be president of the alumni association. After growing up in Bradley County and earning a B.S. in physical therapy from Georgia State University, she went on to receive a master’s at UTC and a doctorate at Knoxville. She says pursuing her doctorate while also working full time and having a small child at home gave her a deep appreciation for the challenges adult students face. She fondly remembers favorite professors Grady Bogue and Mary Jayne Connelly at Knoxville and Richard Metzger at Chattanooga.
Ingram’s family has many a UT connection. Her dad, Ralph Bryson, graduated 50 years ago from the University of Chattanooga, UTC’s forerunner. One of her sisters attended UT Knoxville and graduated from UTC. Her husband, David, is a UT Knoxville grad, and their daughter Alex will be a freshman at Knoxville this fall.
Her husband owns two printing companies in Chattanooga, and Ingram says education made a difference for him, as well. “He was the ninth of ten children, a first-generation college student, and the only one of his siblings to earn a degree. Education gave him the entrepreneurial skills to run his businesses successfully.”
With her personal experience at two UT campuses, Ingram says she appreciates the dynamics of the UT system. “The NAA represents alumni from all the UT campuses, and through this organization we have more diverse talents and can be more effective in our communities at large.”
Ingram spent 2 years as national vice-president for the Physical Therapy Licensing Boards and 2 years as chairman of clinical education for the American Physical Therapy Association. “I promised my husband I wouldn’t volunteer for another major position,” she grins.
Though the NAA presidency is time consuming, she hopes to do some double duty. As she travels to alumni events throughout Tennessee, she’ll also make clinical visits where her students are interning.
She admits to a weakness for ice cream, cats, and vacations in Italy. But her heart stays close to home–“like that Kenny Chesney song ‘when it’s said and done, I’m proud as anyone . . . I’m an old Tennessean . . . that’s where I come from.'”