An Ounce of Support

Jan. 25, 2018

Makaylah Blanks Willis and Constance Bryant

tnAchieves and its volunteer mentors are helping more students earn a college education

Makaylah Blanks-Willis is the first member of her family to go to straight to college following high school graduation.

An only child raised by a single mother, Makaylah knew she wanted to earn a degree and attend a school outside of her native Chattanooga. Now, with the help of tnAchieves, she’s enrolled as a freshman at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn. Makaylah credits tnAchieves and her program mentor, Constance Bryant, a procurement specialist at BlueCross, for helping her make her dream a reality.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” she says.

Makaylah Blanks-Willis is a freshman at Hiwassee College in Madisonville

Breaking down barriers

Supporting primarily first-generation and at-risk students, tnAchieves works to eliminate roadblocks to post-secondary education. It operates in tandem with Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise initiative as part of the Drive to 55 campaign, which aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 by 2025.

The program works by matching students with adult mentors who remind them about important deadlines, assist with paperwork and provide encouragement.

“It’s an easy way to help change a life,” Bryant says. “You just have to be willing to give your time. Once you commit, you need to follow through.”

Since its inception in 2008, tnAchieves has helped thousands of students in need. On average, 65% of its students are first-generation college attendees and 75% come from families with an annual income of $50,000 or less.

Building up the next generation

Mentors with the tnAchieves program must complete an application and a background check, then attend a training session and two meetings:

  • A high school team meeting in the spring, and
  • A college team meeting in the fall.

“During the training, instructors gave examples of what’s worked for mentors and what hasn’t,” Bryant says. “We learned a lot about communication. If you tell these students to call you, they’re not going to call you. They’ll text.”

Constance Bryant, a procurement specialist at BlueCross, serves as a tnAchieves mentor

The program encourages mentors to set communication requirements with their students and regularly check in via calls, emails or texts.

“My requirement for Makaylah is that she reach out to me once a week,” Bryant adds. “I always ask how she’s doing, how her classes are going and if she needs anything.”

“I make sure I know what’s going on. I try to give her advice when she’s struggling and needs help.”

As a mentor, Bryant helped Makaylah find an ACT tutor to improve her test scores and calm her nerves, and she’s even advised her on her major. With Bryant’s guidance, Makaylah has declared a business major and has decided to become an accountant.

Bryant understands the struggles that come with being a first-generation college student.

“Being a mentor keeps me young. It allows me to give back and help someone else succeed,” she says. “I was a first-generation college student as well, so I remember how exciting it was to be the first in my family to go to college. It’s important that I help Makaylah learn from the mistakes I made and help her understand she can do this.”

“I tell her it’s not going to be easy, and there will be setbacks. But we’ll learn from them and keep moving forward.”

Knowing someone has your back

For Makaylah, that support has been a source of comfort and reassurance. Now that she’s figured out the daunting college application process and enrolled, she still benefits from the knowledge and experience of someone who has been there.

“Knowing that I have someone to stand by me, push me and motivate me is great,” she says. “There are good days, but there are also bad days, so being able to reach out to Constance is really helpful.”

As a participant in the program, Makaylah must attend meetings to review requirements and complete 8 hours of community service, which she has done with Meals on Wheels.

“It was fun because I knew I was helping out elderly community members who needed food,” she says.

She continues her weekly check-ins with Bryant through texts, and they see each other when Makaylah is in town.

When she’s not studying, Makaylah still manages to stay busy. She’s now a cheerleader at Hiwassee College and serves as the secretary of the International Student Association.

She’s experienced the value of tnAchieves, and she encourages other students who might need help with college to consider applying for the program.

“It’s OK to ask for help,” she says. “There are people out there who are willing to help you. Don’t feel ashamed or nervous. You’re going to need that support.”

Investing in Tennessee

tnAchieves is an education initiative that works toward the larger goal of developing the state’s economy and skilled professionals.

“If Tennessee wants to attract new jobs, we must first have a qualified workforce,” says Graham Thomas, deputy director of engagement and partnerships at tnAchieves. “The tnAchieves program provides a path for the state’s high school graduates to obtain the skills they need to be successful in today’s job market.”

Bryant, whose son Benjamin is getting ready to enter college, knows that when she spends time with Makaylah, she’s spurring positive change that has ripple effects across the state.

“When she’s successful, she’s going to make Tennessee better,” she says.”

“It’s an investment in our future.”

Photos by Sergio Plecas