Commercial Appeal Guest column: tnAchieves helps forge pathway to higher education
By Krissy DeAlejandro, Special to The Commercial Appeal
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I am a first-generation college graduate. In fact, I am one of very few from my mother’s family to complete high school. I am from rural Tennessee. My parents still live in the small town where I grew up. With my mom completing only her sophomore year and my daddy only graduating from high school, we lived a simple life.
The opportunity to receive a postsecondary credential changed my life. As a low-income first-generation student, I am proof that pursuing and achieving a degree can end a family’s cycle of discounting the value of higher education. Because the opportunity was given to me, my children will never face the obstacles of college access that so many students across our state confront.
With students like me in mind, the founders of the tnAchieves scholarship program made a bold decision one August afternoon in 2008. Against outside expert advice, they unanimously decided that a program seeking to “change lives and transform communities” must not place parameters around acceptance. Thus, the initial program in Knoxville, known as knoxAchieves, launched with the mission of giving every student the opportunity to pursue an education beyond high school with both financial and mentor support.
In only three years, knoxAchieves supported nearly 1,300 students into enrollment in a community college. More than 65 percent were the first in their families to attend college. The program’s first class has an impressive 52-percent persistence rate in college, with a graduation rate higher than the state and national averages.
Recognizing this early success, the tnAchieves board, with encouragement from Gov. Bill Haslam and support from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, expanded into 22 additional Tennessee counties in 2011. This new phase of college access and success launched tnAchieves, a program that has sent nearly 6,500 students to a postsecondary institution — including more than 1,000 in Shelby County.
With the addition of Metro Nashville Public Schools, tnAchieves offers last-dollar scholarships with mentor guidance in 27 counties to nearly 50 percent of Tennessee’s graduating high school seniors. This means tuition cost should no longer be an obstacle when a student is deciding to attend a community or technical college.
The scholarship funding is obviously critical. I believe it is the incentive that sparks a student’s thought of pursuing a postsecondary credential; however, we believe the mentoring component is the reason behind the success of tnAchieves. Each applicant is assigned a mentor who assists in eliminating the barriers associated with access to a postsecondary education. The mentor supports the student through admission and financial aid paperwork, motivates the student to meet deadlines, and perhaps most important, encourages the student to reach his or her potential.
Without the guidance from our volunteer mentors, many of the students would slip through the cracks associated with the transition from high school to a postsecondary institution.
Too often, our students are not assured that college is within their reach. There is no incentive to persist with their education after high school because they cannot envision the possibility of walking onto that college campus, assuming the life of a college student, and being the first in their family to graduate from college. These are lofty and far-fetched goals.
In a short time, however, tnAchieves mentors positively influence students’ perception about postsecondary life and ultimately about themselves.
Since launching in 2011, nearly 1,050 Memphis and Shelby County students have entered either Southwest Tennessee Community College or the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Memphis with financial and mentor support from tnAchieves. With donations from Memphis businesses, foundations and individuals, the program is working to pair nearly, 4,500 applicants with a volunteer mentor.
To accomplish the governor’s goal of reaching a 55-percent postsecondary attainment rate, however, tnAchieves needs support from communities in all 95 of Tennessee’s counties.
Leading tnAchieves is a gift. Since 2008, I have spent the greater part of each day promoting this bold idea that every student, regardless of family income, ZIP code and even academic preparedness, deserves the opportunity to receive a college credential. I read all the reports and appreciate all the statistics surrounding the success of specific student demographics; however, multiple times a day, I witness the power of intervention, the influence of encouragement, and the impact of support.
My vision is to eliminate the predetermined destiny of our state’s students based on their socioeconomic status. I want to promise them a better quality of life and the ability to make a lasting impact in their communities by providing the resources necessary for success.
All Tennessee students deserve the support that tnAchieves offers. It changed my life. It will change our students’ lives and transform our state.
Krissy DeAlejandro is executive director of tnAchieves.