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Firewalker blazes new path at Pellissippi State

Mae Manis in cap and gown
Mae Manis moves from firewalking to anthropology, thanks to degree from Pellissippi State.

Mae Manis had gone down many different paths on her way to Pellissippi State, not the least of which was as a firewalker. “I started firewalking at 15, I started teaching at 18 with my brother, and then I went to firewalking school and got licensed to teach by myself when I was 20,” Mae explains. 

Eventually, however, that became a bit overwhelming. “It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time and a lot of wood,” she notes. Looking for something more stable, Mae became a counselor at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility managing detox units and performing crisis management. With aspirations of sharpening those skills and earning a little more money, Mae began to take classes in social work. Unfortunately, a difficult pregnancy cut her time in school short. 

Despite being reluctant to return to college – “I felt like I was a really bad student in high school, so I didn’t really want go to college again because I thought I was bad at it,” she remembers – Mae decided to enroll at Pellissippi State. Now that she has graduated with an anthropology degree, however, she realizes she is not the bad student she feared she was. Thanks to encouragement from her teachers and advisors, Mae was reminded that she really does enjoy learning. “I’m good at it. I’m not some failure who can’t do,” she says. The special honors tassels on her graduation cap are a testament to that. 

Kelly Rivers, associate professor of English, and Heather White with Pellissippi State Counseling Services helped Mae get through a lot while at Pellissippi State – more than just academics. “I lost my dad and my grandmother within 24 hours during school,” Mae explains. “(Rivers and White) were my support system through that — not just in school, but in supporting me as a person.” And then there’s Judith Sichler, associate professor of Natural and Behavioral Sciences. “She has been wonderful in supporting me and helping me really kind of fill out into anthropology and go, ‘Yes, this is where I want to be.’” 

Mae plans to go for her doctorate and hopes to one day teach and do research as an anthropologist, focusing on religious studies. “I actually did all of that … the firewalking and Native American traditions,” she notes. “I’ve researched all those things and lived those things.” 

Mae describes her time at Pellissippi State as “absolutely life changing for the better.” 

“I have never felt more confident in myself or my ability or what I want to do,” she says. “I could not be more grateful.”

— Interview and photo by Jessie Tipton, visual media coordinator for Pellissippi State; story by Sam Comer, writer for Pellissippi State