Difficulties of achieving an education in Tennessee

Nelson Mandela once said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

My experience as a college student as taught me the truth of that statement.

When I graduated high school a semester early in 2011, I had no idea how I was going to afford college. I am a first-generation college student from a very low-income background. I was going to college, but I did not know how.

Before the end of my last high school semester, we had a group of representatives from an organization called tnAchieves, formerly KnoxAchieves, come talk to us about the aid they could offer if we meet certain guidelines. The aid only applied to community colleges, such as Pellissippi State, and we were required to work alongside a mentor and volunteer within the community for around 10 service hours a semester.

I partnered with tnAchieves for my education and enrolled at Pellissippi in the spring of 2012. While attending Pellissippi, I received many scholarships such as the Hope Scholarship, Pell grant, tnAchieves, and money from the Tennessee Student Assistant Award. Working with these scholarships enabled me to achieve something I have always wanted to do, but never fully envisioned. I am passionate about my time spent at Pellissippi State and the associate’s degree in literature degree I earned from there. I would not be a future Maryville College graduate without it.

So, when tnAchieves approached me and two other students personally about going with them to Nashville, Tenn., to speak to Gov. Haslam and urge our state legislators to adopt “Tennessee Promise,” a program that would allow Tennessee high school graduates to attend a community college for two years while obtaining their degree for free, I could not have been more honored.

We flew for an hour to Nashville by way of private jet to meet with Haslam and the members of the state house committee, and held a private audience with him, discussing our education and plans for our future.

When we went before the house committee, we were allotted around two minutes to share our testimony of how tnAchieves helped us through our college career and led to where we were at today. The two other students and myself agreed that without tnAchieves, the organization that basically paid for our two years of community college, we would not have a chance at holding a degree. Because of the societal pressures put on students today, the prospect of tnAchieves disappearing is absolutely terrifying.

After we each had our turn talking and sharing our testimonies, we sat and observed the representatives discuss “Tennessee Promise.” It was shocking to watch how many legislators have no realistic ideal of a low-income student’s reality. An amount does not recognize the need for a widespread scholarship because they are watching our lives from the outside, they are not living them. I feel like if we as a state can implement this strategy that provides an opportunity for students to achieve a standard society so strongly demands, we will see a radical improvement in our generation and those to follow.

Our legislator’s focus should not be on how prestigious we can make colleges or how intense the curriculum should be. Instead, politicians should focus on making education accessible for all types of students, not just the rich ones or the exceedingly gifted ones. Our generation is the generation of the future. We need to spend time nurturing and enlightening future minds for the years to come.

I do not want to watch colleges fight over prices and budgets. I want to see colleges fight for the opportunity to educate brilliant, young minds.

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