Caroline Parish and five fellow college students journeyed across oceans and continents to the Land of the Rising Sun.

There, Parish and her fellow students met with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and shared their experiences as McWherter Innovators at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

“It was a great honor, and it was just a part of what I’ve gotten out of the institute,” said Parish, who graduated from UT Martin in December.

Named for the late former Tennessee governor, the Ned Ray McWherter Institute at UT Martin selects as many as 12 talented, creative and driven sophomore students as McWherter Innovators. They bring their passions as they meet with mentors and build on their strengths, engage in business and public service ventures, and experience domestic and international cultural events.

In 2015, McWherter Innovators were plucked from something of a record-setting UT Martin student body. That year saw the 2014 freshman class return at an all-time high retention rate of 74.5 percent.

UT Martin’s more than 6,800 students represent 40 states and 19 countries. While they’re all looking for opportunities, being selected as a McWherter Innovator provides an extra dose of that.

The McWherter Institute fosters innovation among UT Martin students and residents of Northwest Tennessee with a goal of making McWherter Innovators the best-trained and most sought-after candidates in their fields.

Andrea Loughry, chair of the McWherter Institute board of directors and a UT Martin and UT Knoxville alumna, said she is excited about the vision and experience of the late Clayton McWhorter being offered to students chosen via a highly selective process. McWhorter established the institute in honor of his friend McWherter to honor the former governor’s legacy of collaboration and innovation.

“This one-of-a-kind program offers exposures outside the normal classroom experiences,” Loughry said, noting McWhorter’s hope was “that the institute would serve as a prototype with future economic impact on the western region of our state.”

Partnered with the university’s Regional Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Center and the Tennessee Small Business Development Center on campus, McWherter Innovators adds a third dimension to further economic development in the western part of the state.