Helping Tennessee Achieve

I want to be the person I would have wanted to mentor me.

IMG_9244That’s how I approach volunteering to mentor Tennessee high school students making the jump to college.

Waaay back when I was a first-generation college student, there was no program of mentoring on the sometimes-complex path toward pursuing a degree.

My ACT composite score was very average (weak by today’s average); I got to skip freshman English but had to take remedial algebra; I transferred colleges a couple of times and lost credits; I changed my major and lost credits; I had to leave school to earn money a couple of times; and nowhere did I have someone helping me avoid the pitfalls. Let’s just say I had above-average determination—stubbornness, maybe?—that kept me going.

No graduate of Tennessee Tech University was ever happier than I was on May 9, 1992, when I hugged President Angelo Volpe and picked up the diploma that signified I had earned a bachelor’s degree.

Today, I’m proud to say, the state of Tennessee is a national innovator in policy and programs to incentivize and support college completion. In 2005, the same year I went to work for the University of Tennessee, the first class of incoming freshmen Tennessee Lottery Scholarship recipients arrived on campus.

That program made such a difference, financially, that even the most-competitive high school graduates with out-of-state scholarship options began staying in Tennessee for college. Year after year, the freshman class at UT Knoxville broke high school GPA and ACT score records. Other Tennessee public colleges also welcomed more better-performing students.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Tennessee elected Bill Haslam governor, and he said we had to do still better: “In 2012 it became clear to leaders across Tennessee that conversations about economic development were becoming conversations about education.”

That was the rationale in 2014 for launching “Drive to 55,” a push to take Tennessee’s percentage of state residents with a post-secondary credential—some completed education after high school—from about 33 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Along with that came “Tennessee Promise,” the first-in-the-nation program of tuition-free community or technical college and mentorship to high school graduates.

A couple years in, I heard so many good things from friends who had volunteered as mentors, I committed to finding the time to mentor, too. But you know what? I found out that mentoring doesn’t really take much time at all.

A mentor’s job is to understand a few basic eligibility requirements the Tennessee Promise recipients have, to attend a group meeting with them and their fellow high school classmates and mentors, and then to get in touch periodically to remind them of deadlines and steps for remaining eligible. Tennessee Achieves requires and sets deadlines for students to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, apply to the in-state college of their choice, and complete eight hours of community service prior to each college semester.

To me, it’s special because mentoring is to overwhelmingly first-generation, first-time college students. It’s a chance to be the mentor I wish I could have had.

IMG_9246Last week brought the meeting I attended at Karns High School in Knoxville to meet the seven college-bound seniors I get to mentor. I learned their identities a few weeks earlier and had been corresponding via email to remind them of the upcoming meeting. Per usual, I didn’t hear back from all of them.

I received nice messages back from two, and both were at Karns with their moms. I met two others I hadn’t heard back from, and three others weren’t at the meeting—which is not all that unusual. Though eligibility rules require the students to attend or to provide an acceptable excuse within 72 hours. Which is how I got to meet an Oak Ridge High School student who was there because of missing her meeting a couple of days earlier.

Allowing for potential traffic, I gave myself extra time to get to the meeting and was early. I watched kids, some with parents or other adults, arriving. They’re just like we all remember being in high school: some quiet, some loud, some cut-ups and some hipsters.

When you check in, you’re given the number of a cafeteria table where you’ll sit. I headed for No. 26 to wait for my mentees. It was about 10 minutes before start time, but already there was my mentee, Cole, a quiet young man with glasses and a ready smile. He was polite, extended his hand to shake mine, then reached in a brown paper bag to offer me one of the fried cheese sticks he was eating for dinner. Cole plans to enroll at a local community college and, long-term, is thinking about possibly going to medical school. I asked him if he’s comfortable with math and science, and he nodded.

img_9241.jpgThen came Brooke and her mom, who has a non-medical job in a local hospital. Mom knows firsthand the range and demand for work in healthcare, and Brooke is considering a medical imaging concentration at an area community college. Mom had a few more questions than Brooke, who struck me as independent and determined to figure out as much as she could for herself.

Two other students, Kailey and Abbey, soon arrived with their moms, and we’d all been in touch via email before the meeting. I knew Kailey plans to go to UT Knoxville and Abbey plans to go to my alma mater, Tennessee Tech. Kailey is a personable, outgoing girl who hasn’t decided on her major yet. Abbey is friendly but reserved, still trying to decide in which area of engineering she will major.

IMG_9237On my way out after the meeting, I realized both of their names are on a plaque of honor for graduating seniors who achieved higher than a 30 on their composite ACT scores. For reference, mine was 18.

Zoe is the sweet Oak Ridge High student who came to Karns to make up for missing her local meeting. I think she randomly chose my table, and I had the chance to learn she is a violinist, a soccer player, and that she’s interested in attending Maryville College. I helped her with a form the students had to complete. It includes blanks for filling in the name and contact information for the student’s mentor, and Zoe said, “I don’t think I have one because I haven’t heard from anybody, so can I put you down?”

See? Small demands. Big rewards.

Now I get to stay in touch with Zoe. Along with Cole, Brooke, Kailey and Abbey. And I’ve emailed the three who were absent last week to remind them to notify the program with an acceptable excuse so their eligibility continues.

As one of the program officials said to the students last week, “This is the tough love part of the program. We give you requirements. Your mentors remind you of them. These are hard and fast deadlines. You’re learning that requirements and deadlines are a part of adult life, and you’re learning responsibility for them.”

IMG_9242According to Tennessee Achieves, its founders “understood that students, particularly at-risk students, need more than funding to complete college.” That’s the reason for “a holistic approach to student access and success by providing wrap-around supports.”

Sounds good, but for me, it’s just an opportunity to put my experience with obstacles to use in helping the next generation overcome some of their obstacles. Then maybe they pay that forward to the generation that follows them.IMG_9238

That’s the kind of mentor I would have wanted.

The Communicators Go to Washington

I recently spent half a week in Washington, D.C.

For this student of history, consumer of headlines, and higher ed mouthpiece, it was like summer camp for grownups.

IMG_8889I was in town to attend the annual conference for senior communication professionals of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. I’ve been to Washington a few times, but this was my first AASCU conference, and I really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues from public universities across the country.

People who don’t work in higher ed may be unaware of the social, political and funding concerns universities face. Those of us who communicate and manage crises for universities are all too aware of the seemingly endless concerns. That’s the best part of gathering to share ideas with peers and experts. Who doesn’t love talking shop with people they’ve just met, yet who are so familiar with their unique challenges that conversation can go straight to shorthand, right from the beginning?

We shared stories of campus free speech concerns, sexual assault controversies, slashed budgets and university mergers–and that was just Tuesday. The next day began with a look at what current and future generations of college students think about the cost and necessity of higher ed. The insight came from one of the most highly regarded public opinion experts in the country, John Zogby of Zogby Research. If you recognize the name, it’s probably from hearing national network news anchors cite his company’s polling data.

Among his fascinating insights: Many of the country’s most-familiar establishments, institutions and agencies that have provided security, comfort and familiarity are undergoing a process of devaluation. Institutions once counted on to nurture our opportunities may be falling short and devalued to the point they’re no longer seen as requirements but impediments to growth.

He had a great example to illustrate perception gaps:

“To my generation, Mickey Mantle was the greatest. To my kids, he was a drunk.”

I can relate. As long as we’re talking baseball, my husband and I have an equally wide gap in our perceptions of Pete Rose. My husband is a fan, by the way, and I’ll leave it at that.

What’s important–if not alarming–is whether those of us in higher ed, along with churches, governmental and non-governmental institutions can maintain relevance as the social sands shift beneath our feet. As Zogby said, millennials have grown up in a world they can hold in their hands, accessible 24/7 via smart phones and connectivity. The challenge for higher ed and other longstanding, bureaucratic institutions is “running to catch up with empowered individuals.”

Later that day, we heard from Scott Jaschik, a founder and the editor of Inside Higher Ed, and Jennifer Ruark, an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, on how to succeed at submitting an opinion piece to their publications. News flash–your piece must express an opinion, not merely extol your university’s virtues. They represent the two most-prestigious national publications devoted strictly to higher ed. And for useful editorials, both suggested a few of the kinds of topics about which anyone in higher ed administration would have an opinion but could–very likely–be reluctant to express in public. Examples: Do gen ed and liberal arts survive at regional universities? Or, how college deepens inequality.

See? Life’s not easy up in The Ivory Tower. Probably because the Tower is under threat on multiple fronts. As Zogby also said, “Today’s elite is tomorrow’s irrelevant.”

I enjoyed meeting Jaschik on a visit to Inside Higher Ed during a 2007 conference, so between a visit there or to The Chronicle that AASCU set up for us as our last activity before leaving town, I opted to stop by The Chronicle.

Liz McMillen, center, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It was great finally meeting Eric Kelderman, a reporter I’ve worked with a few times, along with reporter Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, and editor Liz McMillen, who made time out of what I’m sure is none. They invited the 10 of us from universities across the country to share “what keeps you up at night.” No one had to think too long to come up with a list.

It also was great walking through an actual, staffed newsroom, and seeing evidence of a process of designing, approving and printing actual pages on paper.

But it wasn’t all work and no play to make Gina a dull girl.

I made the most of a few fleeting moments the afternoon I got to town and in the evenings after our conference adjourned for the day. AASCU hosted the conference in its offices, about three blocks from my hotel, and both are in the heart of Washington. I walk a few miles every day, anyway, and it was great to have all of walkable, “monumental” Washington at my doorstep for three days.

img_88591.jpgAnyone who’s ever spent time there knows it’s impossible not to know you’re in the seat of our national government. Every kind of interest group–including AASCU–has a full-time presence.

Picketers, demonstrators and advocators are everywhere. Which I find kind of invigorating.


In the space of three blocks, I passed AFL-CIO headquarters, the offices of the National Postal Workers Union, encountered a couple of panhandlers, was invited to join Amnesty International, and asked if I could contribute money to help Syrian refugees.

I took long walks from my hotel and back to see the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the relatively new World War II Memorial and the old, abiding national treasures that are the Smithsonian museums.

The Washington Post was on my block and the White House was only a half-mile away.

On past visits, I’ve been to the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

This time, I wanted to see the Hope Diamond. It’s in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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I also took the first chance I had to see the recently completed portrait of former President Barack Obama–and all of his predecessors, in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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Quite by accident, I ended up in an extremely posh neighborhood on my way home one evening.

Full of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” retail such as Dior, Gucci and Prada–even a Tesla dealership in the heart of the city. I snapped my photos and hoped there wouldn’t somehow be a charge for that.

For my money, Washington’s best treasures are the national kind–the ones behind glass, or a velvet rope, for which the only cost to experience them is your time. I made the most of mine this trip, including time with AASCU member colleagues I look forward to keeping in touch with. It was fun doing both in a city that has so many interesting things to see, there are always more and new ones for next time.

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