Emmalee Mathews achieved some notable firsts when she received her bachelor’s degree Dec. 10 from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She excelled as a first-generation college student and was among the top graduates academically in her class. The health and human performance student from Dickson, Tennessee, also became the first recipient of the Rosann and Bill Nunnelly Family Scholarship to graduate.
The Nunnellys bequeathed $22 million to the university in 2019, then the largest gift to UT Martin, but the couple immediately began funding scholarships, and Mathews was one of four students selected to benefit from their generosity. The scholarship awards give preference to students from Hickman County in Middle Tennessee, but students from Dickson, Giles, Lawrence, Lewis, Maury and Humphreys counties will also be eligible to receive future scholarships.
Mathews attended East Hickman High School in Lyles, and when it came time for college, she was accepted to UT Martin but didn’t receive enough financial aid to attend the university. An unexpected call from a UTM admissions counselor told her about the new Nunnelly Family Scholarship and she applied. Mathews was chosen, and her world immediately changed. “I would have had to pay to attend every semester, but because of the scholarship, I was able to receive that and then some, and I was able to save what was left over and put it towards graduate school,” she said.
Beyond the financial benefit, the scholarship also brought Mathews to a university that was a good fit for her personally and academically.
“I have made a lot of connections that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t come to UT Martin. I’ve made great friendships, great relationships,” Mathews said.
“I have made a lot of connections that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t come to UT Martin. I’ve made great friendships, great relationships,” Mathews said. “I love the faculty. They feel like your mom or dad.”
“They want to see you succeed, which is great because I feel like if you were to go to a larger school, you wouldn’t get that one-on-one connection with your professors.”
Mathews said she was challenged in the classroom, but she enjoyed what she studied and was successful. “I love my major,” she said. “I would do it all over again.” Next for her is to attend graduate school and prepare for a career as a physician assistant. “I just love the health-care field,” she said. “I kind of went back and forth on a couple of different fields, and once I shadowed, I kind of got a feel for it, and I love it, so it’s what I want to pursue.”
Mathews never met the Nunnellys, but at one point, she exchanged letters with Bill, and he offered her some simple advice: “He told me just to enjoy my time while I’m here.” She followed his advice, excelled academically, and the payoff is a degree that sets her a course to fulfill her dream of entering the health-care field. “I’m finally going to get to do what I want in life, and I get a lot of validation out of me putting in the hard work that I have, so it’s rewarding for sure.”
At the time of the announcement, Bill Nunnelly, who died in February of this year, described the gift from he and his wife as a “wonderful way to give something back.” Emmalee Mathews would agree, and she’s the first of many to benefit from the generosity of this Middle Tennessee couple who wanted to make a difference in students’ lives.
Students can apply for the Nunnelly Family Scholarship through Scholarship Aviator located on the UT Martin Financial Aid and Scholarships webpage. The application is open Oct. 1-Feb. 1, and current students should reapply annually. Contact the Office of Student Financial Assistance for more information at 800-829-UTM1.