When Jordan Smith shows off his impressive vocal range in tonight's championship round of "The Voice," it will also be a high note for Lee University.
With Smith's performance, Lee becomes the first university in the nation to land students in the championship rounds of both "American Idol" and "The Voice" — much less in the same year.
Clark Beckham was the runner-up in May's finale of "American Idol," and Smith is a finalist, and considered the front runner, to win the Season 9 title of "The Voice" on Tuesday night.
"We're a small, Christian liberal arts school in Southeast Tennessee. Schools like Juilliard and Berklee (College of Music) aren't in the mix," said Darren Echols, Lee University director of admissions. "It's crazy for a school like Lee to be so prominent in these national competitions."
Echols is well aware that few colleges get this gift of attention.
"It's definitely a branding, free publicity on a national level for us. It's a natural way to get Lee's name out to the public in a way we typically wouldn't be able to at the national level," he said.
The Cleveland, Tenn., school, which has about 5,000 students, is becoming something of a TV talent show factory with the number of successful contestants it has produced from its music department.
Phil Stacey placed sixth on Season 6 of "American Idol" in 2007, and the Voices of Lee a cappella ensemble finished third on NBC's "The Sing Off" in 2009. Candace Whittington, a Voices of Lee alumna, made a second appearance in "The Sing Off" two years later as part of an all-female octet called Delilah.
Lee-trained male vocalists Jermaine Purifory and Chase Guyton made it into the Hollywood rounds on separate seasons of "American Idol" before Beckham was runner-up earlier this year.
Additionally, the Lee Singers and Voices of Lee are on the road throughout each academic year, performing anywhere from banquet gigs to President Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.
"We definitely have had students come here saying they heard about the school on TV," said William Green, dean of Lee's School of Music. "We get a lot of comments, especially when we are on the road, 'Oh, that's where Clark was from.'"
It was 2013 when Lee's festival choir sang at the 2013 presidential inauguration.
"We had a huge bump in interest that year," Green said. "We really try to maximize these opportunities without misusing the fame."
Famous 'Idol" alumni have helped their alma mater's recruitment efforts by starring in promotional video shoots, he added. Beckham also attended the university's freshman visitation day this year.
Sure, it's exciting for prospective students to meet these celebrities.
But Green notes that the university's message is more profound: "They found a great home here, got great training here and were able to do something with it."
Courtney Blackwell, a junior from Cordele, Ga., and Alex Ubieran, a senior from Buford, Ga., are both members of the Lee Singers. They've seen an uptick in the number of questions they get about their college since Beckham's and Smith's television runs.
"I've had people from home texting me and asking, 'Do you know Jordan?'" says Blackwell. "Where the Singers have been going, people are coming up and asking about him. I definitely think Lee is getting a lot of attention right now."
"People started making the connection between Jordan and Lee particularly at this past concert we did in Middle Tennessee," he said. "When people know that I go to Lee, they start asking questions."
Echols said Lee admissions counselors are reporting more name recognition from students visiting college fairs.
"It's more a conversation starter than a strategic recruitment tool," he said. "The more success you have, the more people are going to notice it. Phil was the first one to have real success, and it has kind of peaked with Clark in the spring and Jordan now."
And whether Smith wins or loses on "The Voice," the university has plans to keep the momentum going.
For the first time, Echols said, the university is sponsoring a four-day mini-recruitment tour in February featuring Clark Beckham.
The soul singer will travel with admissions counselors to Birmingham, Memphis, Knoxville and Greenville, S.C., to perform and promote his alma mater.
Contact Susan Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6284.
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