From Olympic Gold Medalist to UT Graduate with Online Social Work Degree

Author: Laken Wright

Last Updated:

Category: Featured Story | Social Work

US track and field Olympian graduates with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW) degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, online program.

photo of Tianna Madison wearing gold medals

Pursuing achievement: UT’s online BSSW program

Becoming an Olympic gold medalist is just one of the many impressive feats Tianna Madison, formerly Bartoletta, has achieved. A three-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, Tianna returned where she left off, 20 years ago, to finish her BSSW degree.

How did her UT journey first begin? In 2003, Tianna came to UT as a track and field athlete and undergraduate BSSW student. After her sophomore year, Tianna was offered a NIKE contract to “go-pro” and left school to train full-time.

Tianna remembers, “I was told by my agent and my family that I could always return to school, and so for 16 years I traveled the world, made two Olympic teams, and countless other national teams. I’ve won three Olympic Gold Medals, three World Championship Gold Medals, and three World Championship bronze medals.”

After not making the Tokyo Olympic team because she was pregnant with her son, she decided that she was ready to move away from the sport.

Tianna shares, “The first thing I wanted to do was return to school to complete my degree. So here I am! And just a month away from reaching one of the most important goals I have ever set for myself.”

Transitioning from Olympic teams to online education

“If it weren’t for the online BSSW program I would not have been able to close this circle. I am so proud that I am able to graduate as a Vol!”

– Tianna Madison, online student, Bachelor of Science in Social Work

While juggling all aspects of life, Tianna required flexibility in her schedule, which made the online BSSW program a perfect match. Since online learning empowers students to work around employment schedules, events, and other life opportunities, the BSSW online program enabled Tianna to continue her high level of success—balancing academics, motherhood, and entrepreneurship.

Tianna shares, “As a new mom and entrepreneur, I needed as much flexibility as I could get. I also live out of state, therefore an online classroom made the most sense.”

Having family in both Ohio and California called for constant travel, which can be difficult while balancing all of life’s other obligations. But the flexibility of UT’s asynchronous, online BSSW program enabled Tianna to manage it all successfully.

Tianna shares, “Traveling back and forth monthly was difficult, but it was important to me to keep my family ‘connected’ even as I was pursuing a personal goal. Fortunately, my partner is my biggest cheerleader and although it’s challenging, it’s manageable because I have had so much support.”

UT’s supportive and engaging faculty

The support system at home and UT provided Tianna with the assistance she needed as an adult learner, enabling her to continue to achieve her goals through additional professional development.  

“Before enrolling back in school, Professor Mindrup met with me online to answer all of my questions, to help me brainstorm how I could make this work, and most importantly for admitting me back into the program,” Tianna shares.   

Once admitted to the program, she worked with professors, advisors, and other professionals at UT to help her navigate the demands of returning to school.  

Tianna explains, “Professor Adams helped me navigate finding a field placement in Ohio. Field placement was the component of the program that caused me the most anxiety because I had no idea where I wanted to be placed or what was available. Professor Adams truly helped make that process as easy as possible and I absolutely love my field placement.” 

“Professor Mindrup and Professor Adams have been absolutely critical to my success in this program.”

– Tianna Madison

The passion to help trauma survivors

As an entrepreneur, mother, and professional athlete, Tianna felt UT’s BSSW online program would be the best option to help advance her career in social work due to the benefits of remote learning. Finally, after 16 years of traveling the world as a professional athlete, Tianna is approaching the finish line to achieve one of her most important goals, completing her bachelor’s degree in social work so she can assist others with traumatic life experiences.  It was through her own challenging, personal experiences, Tianna realized that social work was her true calling.  

She openly shares about her story as a survivor, “ I became a sexual assault survivor in high school and the response to that incident was handled so poorly by the adults in my life. That was my first time wondering if there was a better way, and vowing that I would respond differently, in a more positive way, to anyone who disclosed to me.” 

Tianna continues, “Then, I became a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV).  That was a chapter where I experienced the most growth as a human, and was the second time in my life I thought there has to be a better way to help victims/survivors. I started a non-profit in my first semester back at UT called The Stay Gone Initiative to address some gaps in service I experienced when trying to leave my abuser.” 

“Finally, when racial tensions erupted during the peak of the pandemic many people looked to me because of my ability and willingness to talk about difficult subjects and break them down into digestible nuggets to prompt conversation was my final ‘sign’ that it was social work that I was called to finish and practice,” Tianna concludes.  

These life experiences are what drew Tianna to social work, a field focused on helping others. 

Tianna explains, “I have more clarity about what I want to do and what area I want to specialize in returning as an adult learner. My life experiences helped me curate my interests and know that I want to advocate for justice-involved survivors.” 

Crossing the finish line

Driven by a passion for justice, Tianna was determined to get back on her educational track and graduate with her BSSW. UT’s online program allowed Tianna to manage all the other moving parts in her life without giving up on her personal goal of securing a degree and taking the next step to becoming an advocate for justice, change, and social work.   

During the program, Tianna developed workload management and communication skills.  

Tianna explains “After completing the program, I am a much more skilled interviewer. I am a competent and effective group facilitator, and I’ve learned how to manage documentation in a timely and efficient manner.” Tianna adds, “The online course taught me how to ask for what I need.”  

The skills she gained while completing her BSSW will help propel Tianna forward in life’s wins as a parent, social worker, entrepreneur, and more. 


Tianna was recently welcomed into the University of Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame as a part of the distinguished dozen, 12-member Class of 2023! Read the full story and highlights on the UT Athletics Sports page.

two women sitting at picnic table near a cherry blossom tree

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