TN Promise’s goal is to provide an opportunity for every high school student in Tennessee to attend college.
Emily Yardumian, 18, is taking advantage of the state program, which is the brainchild of Gov. Bill Haslam and signed into law in 2014. She is a freshman at Motlow College majoring in music and computer science.
TN Promise, funded with lottery reserves, is a scholarship program that provides last-dollar funding for students attending community colleges or technology schools.
TN Promise covers tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship or state student assistance funds. Students may use the scholarship at any of the 13 community colleges in Tennessee, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institutions.
A crucial part of TN Promise is the mentoring program. Mentors are volunteers who help students navigate the college admissions process and ensure they complete TN Promise requirements in order to receive the scholarship.
“My mentor was Reba (Walters), who used to teach nursing at Motlow,” Yardumian said. “She was very nice and helpful.
“Whenever we would have meetings, she would send us reminders to make sure we would get there,” Yardumian said. “In addition, she would send out reminders about important deadlines and important facts. She would answer any questions I had or she would know who to ask to get more information.”
Yardumian was homeschooled before attending Motlow. Though the experience at Motlow was quite different from what she was used to, the transition wasn’t that dramatic, she said.
“It wasn’t as big of a change as I thought it would be,” she said. “It was nice because during my dual-enrollment year I kind of started getting into it. Starting out with two classes, I was able to get used to college.”
Completing eight hours of community service is also part of the TN Promise program.
“I spent a lot of time with my music ministering people and serving them at the Life Care nursing home in Tullahoma,” Yardumian said. “Also, I’m really involved with the music ministry at my church.”
Yardumian encourages every high school student to take advantage of the program.
“TN Promise gives a chance to people who either wouldn’t have been able to go to college or for whom going to college would have been a struggle,” she said. “The program gives them the opportunity to go to college. The support system with the mentors and the people in your group is important, as well.”
Participating in the program also gives students the chance to be a part of a community.
“In college, it is so easy to go to campus and then just go home to do your homework and not be very involved,” she said. “But once you’ve gotten to know those people, you’re a part of a community. Being involved has been a good thing.”
Yardumian said the program has helped many students to pursue a college degree.
“Many people have taken advantage of the program,” she said. “I can see the growth of Motlow during the past couple of years. It keeps growing and growing.”
After graduating from Motlow, Yardumian is planning to transfer to Tennessee Technological University.
“I am going to be studying computer science there,” she said.
A way to volunteer
Yardumian’s mentor Walters began mentoring shortly after retiring from Motlow.
“I retired in 2014,” Walters said. “I worked as a nurse instructor and a nurse for quite a few years. This is my second year with TN Promise. I started in 2015. I went through one cycle, and, now I am starting the second cycle.”
She decided to participate as a mentor as soon as she heard about the program.
“It feels like a natural extension to me,” Walters said. “I was an advisor to students for all these years, and I feel that I understand the process and the issues new students have to deal with. It was a way to do volunteer work.”
Mentoring only takes a few hours a year, she said.
“I have to attend two meetings that last only one hour,” Walters said. “I am supposed to send the mentees an introductory email, and I am supposed to text or email them – whatever works better for the group – every two weeks.”
Occasionally, students contact mentors with questions.
“The main thing about the mentors is to send kids reminders about those deadlines and to be there for advice, if they need it,” Walters said.
Students can rely on mentors and speak with them about their college experience.
“We are there to give them ideas of whom they might call if they have a question,” Walters said. “We are also there to tell them how they can get their community hours or give them ideas about job shadowing.”
During her first cycle with the program, Walters mentored six students. This year, she is mentoring nine students.
“It depends on how many students are signed up for TN Promise in your area,” she said.
The groups of students are different each year, which makes participating in the program interesting, said Walters.
“Last year, my group was all girls, and they were all homeschooled,” she said.
“This year, I have nine; they all went to high school, and one of them wants to go to TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology),” she said. “It will be interesting. TCATs have different deadlines.”
Most of the homeschooled students were very independent and were used to checking their emails, said Walters.
“They were also used to finding out things online,” she said. “That’s what is hard for some of the students. In high school, every day they have announcements to remind them of what’s going on. Once they go to college, if they don’t read their emails (they’re in trouble).”
Mandatory meetings between students and mentors are a vital part of the TN Promise program.
“On March 6, I will go to the high school. All the students and all the mentors will be there, we’ll break into groups, and I will meet my group. Then, I won’t see them again until the fall.”
However, Walters said they will stay in touch and communicate via phone and email. She will help them with the application process.
“I go through the first semester of college,” Walters said. “I make sure they get through the first semester.”
Walters said the program is organized very well and the support to mentors is great. A handbook helps mentors with goals students need to set, deadlines and facts related to colleges. Also, someone with the program is always on hand if mentors have any questions about the process.
“It’s put together very well,” she said. “In the handbook, they give you an example of an email to send to your mentees, and you can use it as guide. It tells you what you should include and when exactly you need to communicate.”
Walters stresses the importance of volunteers becoming involved as TN Promise mentors. No college experience is needed, she said. Mentors are there to be “the adult” in the college-entering process, she said.
“I talk to them about getting to know people for references,” she said. “They need to have relations with some of the professors because they are going to need references. You have to have somebody you know well enough to ask them to do that, and to know they would agree to be a reference for you. It’s that ‘relationships thing.’ It’s such a big part of the work force, and you don’t get that when you’re 18.”
Debra Smith is assistant dean for career and technical programs for Motlow and the TN Promise coordinator for Coffee, Bedford, Cannon, DeKalb, Franklin, Lincoln, Moore, Van Buren, Warren and White counties.
“We had the class of 2015, the class of 2016, and the class of 2017 will be our third class,” Smith said.
“Incoming freshmen at this time are eligible for TN Promise,” Smith said. “They can be in high school, homeschooled or in private school, as long as they are residents of Tennessee. They have to have filed FASFA before Jan. 17, attend the mandatory meetings and enroll full time.”
Students also have to complete eight hours of community service.
Coffee County numbers
“Last year, Coffee County needed 88 mentors, and we had 77 apply,” Smith said. “We needed 11 more to meet our 100-percent goal. We got 88 percent of the mentors needed.”
Student participation has been great and has increased the number of people attending college, said Smith.
“In 2015, we had 544 students in Coffee County apply, 439 met at the first meeting, 201 enrolled,” she said. “In 2016, 543 applied and 375 attended the mandatory meeting, and we don’t have data yet about the number of the students enrolled.
In 2014, the college going rate (percentage of students attending postsecondary institutions) was 51 percent, while in 2015 that number increased to 63 percent, which means there is 12-percent growth in college going rate in Coffee County, according to Smith.
Since the launching of TN Promise, student loans are down 23 percent, said Smith.
“The whole reason for having TN Promise is Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 program,” Smith said. “The governor projected that we need 55 percent of the workforce get a college degree by 2025,” Smith said. “If we meet that goal, for Coffee County, it will mean 58 million additional earnings to workers.”
For more information, visit http://tennesseepromise.gov/about.shtml or contact Smith at (931) 438-9766.