MARTIN, Tenn. — Taner Swinea might be the best-known person people didn’t know at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The Waynesboro, Tenn., native received undergraduate degrees in accounting and finance May 3, and with his walk across the Elam Center graduation stage, also ended a two-year run as the university’s mascot Captain Skyhawk. He was honored for his academic achievements and university service as he received one of three Paul and Martha Meek Leadership Awards during spring commencement.
The award was first presented in 1970 and is given to a graduating senior who has demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities while attending the university. Paul Meek served as UT Martin’s chancellor from 1934-67, and the award was originally established and funded by the Meek children to honor their parents.
“I was shocked,” Taner said in an e-mailed statement about receiving the award, which is the only award presented at commencement. He added, “It was an amazing feeling to be recognized like that in my last act as an undergraduate student at UTM.”
Taner’s path to earning two college degrees and the Meek Award began at Wayne County High School, where he played several sports and later entered UT Martin to study biology. Attending medical school was his ultimate goal, and although he earned good grades in the sciences, he discovered that biology wasn’t his calling. He sought guidance through the university’s Student Success Center that offers testing to help students make career choices.
“So I took some of those tests, and I’d already kind of thought about business, but then the results from that (the testing) kind of confirmed what I’d been thinking,” he said. “So then I just signed up for some classes and really liked it.” Swinea initially majored in finance, but an accounting professor later convinced him to pursue both degrees. He enrolled in accounting classes to prepare for the Certified Public Accountant exam, which counted toward the additional 30 hours required to earn two degrees.
While he distinguished himself in the classroom, Taner also participated in many activities, including his role as a leader in the Peer Enabling Program, which helps with students’ transition from high school to college. “I knew how much it (the PEP Program) helped me when I came here,” he said. “So I just like to … help out others kind of the same way.”
He was also involved in Greek Life as a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, where he served as academic chair and chaplain. While it was fun to participate in homecoming, Greek Week and other activities, the opportunities to practice his presentation skills at events “in front of … a few thousand people” helped to boost his confidence.
And then there were his two years – mostly in an anonymous role – as Captain Skyhawk, the colorful UT Martin sports mascot. “Well, I’ve loved being the mascot,” Taner said of the experience. “That’s a lot of fun.” The former high school athlete added, “That was my way of being involved in athletics.”
Taner began his run as Captain Skyhawk in fall 2012 by splitting time with the person who previously wore the costume. He became the full-time Captain at the beginning of spring semester 2013, with only an occasional break during the next two years. His top mascot experience came at the 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament game in Chapel Hill as the Skyhawks lost a memorable first-round game by two points to the North Carolina Tar Heels. “I don't know – just something about being there,” Taner recalled. “It was so exciting and everything, and we were up so much, and then it was so heartbreaking.”
With graduation behind him and degrees in hand, a financial analyst position awaits him with Cummins Inc., a Fortune 200 company located just north of Minneapolis, Minn. The company’s website describes Cummins as “a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel engines and related technology around the world.”
Once again, campus involvement opened doors as he participated in the university’s Institute of Management Accountants and attended the 2012-13 IMA conference in San Antonio, Texas. As he completed the registration form, he noticed an opportunity to attach a resume, which he did when he submitted the form. “And then a couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from them and it said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for an interview.’”
Two interviews later, he received an internship during the summer of 2013 in Memphis. “And then, I found out about September (2013) that from the internship I’d been offered a position as a financial analyst,” he said, which removed a job search from his senior year to-do list.
As he reflects on his college experience, Taner credits a hectic schedule during his last two years for teaching him valuable lessons beyond the classroom. “Even though my grades slipped (he graduated with a 3.78 grade point average), and I didn’t have as much time to study and everything, I feel like I learned a lot more being so busy,” he said.
This spring semester, that included taking 19 academic hours, performing as Captain Skyhawk, serving as a facilitator for the university’s Leaders-in-Residence Program, and holding a job at the university’s Computer Store. “You learn a lot more outside the classroom than you do inside the classroom,” he said. “I feel like being here has … really prepared me well for being out in the real world.”
Besides his new job, Taner plans to earn his CPA and some other credentials to improve his prospects in the company. Graduate school is also a possibility.
In the meantime, few people have the opportunity to swap a mascot suit for business attire, but Taner Swinea is doing just that in his transition from college life to the corporate world. Moving from Captain Skyhawk to someday becoming a captain of industry has a nice ring to it for this new college graduate.