Photography by Angela Foster / Stacy Lightfoot is vice chancellor for Diversity & Engagement at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Stacy Lightfoot is back where she began, on the campus she visited as a child while her mother attended classes.

"UTC is in my veins," says Lightfoot, the university's new vice chancellor for Diversity & Engagement. "UTC was part of my journey as a little girl and into womanhood."

Lightfoot is the first person in the newly created role, and the first woman of color to hold a cabinet-level position in the university's history.

But firsts are Lightfoot's business. In her work over more than a decade at the Public Education Foundation, she devoted herself to making college possible for students who were often the first in their families to attend.

"The costs of college are increasing, and most of the students I work with are first-generation and/or students of color and/or from low-income backgrounds," Lightfoot says. "My mother was making $11,000 a year when I graduated high school, and I'm working with students whose parents are making $11,000."

A counselor at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences set Lightfoot on her path to education advocacy. Susan Chipley Street helped Lightfoot become a Bonner Scholar at DePauw University in Indiana, which led to stints studying abroad.

"Here I am in Italy, this poor Black girl from the east side of Chattanooga," Lightfoot laughs. "And now I feel like I can do anything."

Street became Lightfoot's mentor, her friend and, eventually, Lightfoot's boss at the nonprofit College Access Center that Street founded. The center merged with Public Education Foundation in 2009, and Lightfoot's role grew to include testifying before Congress on issues of college access and founding the STEP-UP internship program that serves 1,300 local students, most of them from low-income households.

Stacy Lightfoot

* Role: Vice chancellor for Diversity & Engagement at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

* Career: Lightfoot spent the last 12 years with the Public Education Foundation (PEF), most recently as the organization’s executive vice president. Lightfoot received a bachelor’s degree in communication from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and a master’s in international service from the University of Roehampton in London, England. Her international experiences also include studying abroad at Temple University’s Rome, Italy, campus and at the University of Technology in Kingston, Jamaica.

* Personal: The daughter of a single mother, Lightfoot was the primary caregiver to her mother for 17 years, until she passed away in 2019. “That was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. I was able to see her through to the very end.”

All along, Lightfoot aimed to emulate her mentor, she says.

"I wanted to be her," she says. "I'm testifying before Congress, and it's because one individual showed me the way. That's what I wanted to be — that person."

She never expected to leave her work in student advocacy at the Public Education Foundation, but the opportunity at UTC proved irresistible, Lightfoot says.

"I could not imagine life outside PEF until this role came along," she says. "The university has always valued diversity and inclusion, but there wasn't anyone waking up every day executing what that meant."