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Gina Stafford

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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.

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