This post is part of Coffee and Conversation, a monthly interview series that highlights impactful, interesting work affecting Tennessee education. The Deputy Director of Engagement and Partnerships for tnAchieves, Graham Thomas, TNPromise mentor Angela Saylor, and TNPromise student Mary Rose Uwimana joined us to discuss how tnAchieves supports TNPromise students in the transition from high school to postsecondary education. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is tnAchieves?
Graham Thomas: TnAchieves is a partner organization to Governor Haslam’s TNPromise program. TNPromise provides any student in the state the opportunity to attend one of our 13 community colleges, our 27 technical colleges, and a handful of universities for two and a half years with mentor support. TnAchieves operates the program in 84 of Tennessee’s 95 counties, we monitor progress, we keep up with the meetings, we run the mentoring program, and we track community service –basically, all the non-financial components come through us.

Why is the mentorship aspect of this program so crucial? Why not just provide the scholarship money alone?
GT: Our target student has always been a low-income, first generation college-goer. We know that eliminating the financial barrier is important, that if no one in your family has gone to college, going to college can be really difficult. We wanted to ensure someone was in their corner.

Also, we are a staff of 15 working with about 60,000 high school students every year and 25,000 college students. We can’t manage the case load in a way to really effectively support students. So our mentors are a game-changer for our students, but it’s also the reason the fifteen of us can wake up and do this work every day.

Who can be a mentor?
GT: The requirements are pretty simple. You have to be 21-years-old. And we run a background check on all our mentors. If you care about education and have one hour a month to invest in your community, you can be a mentor. We put all our mentors through a one-hour training, and we give them a handbook that is really focused on the process. 

Angela, why did you decide to become a tnAchieves mentor?
Angela Saylor: I got so excited about this. My own children went to public school and they were served pretty well. I thought, how can I give back to the system and to students so they have that opportunity? And I think about first generation college students, in developing themselves with education, they transform their community, and they go off to be future leaders.

Mary Rose, tell me about your process deciding to get a postsecondary degree. How has tnAchieves helped you take a step toward your educational goals?
Mary Rose Uwimana: I am going to Nashville State with TNPromise, pursing psychology, but my main goal is to become a pharmaceutical scientist. I had to go through psychology because I didn’t know initially what field I wanted to work in. TNPromise and tnAchieves gave me hope because I was thinking how am I going to pay for my school? Will I need to take a job?

Mary Rose, what would you tell other Tennessee high school students who haven’t decided to pursue education after high school?
MU: Everyone should have hope. The mentors are here to help us. For the high school students, you should respond to your mentor’s messages. If you ask the mentors questions, they will guide you through it. Education is the key to everything. If you have this kind of chance with TNPromise, you have help through every part of the process. You should pursue it.

GT: Mary Rose was one of our summer bridge program participants. We operate it for free at all 13 community colleges. Do you want to tell us about that experience?

MU: It was really great. It helps you test out of some of the support classes. It also shows you how college life is. I never regretted leaving my job because what they were teaching us then, I’m seeing it right now in my classes.

GT: Between 60 and 80 percent of our students in a given year need a remedial class. So they go for three weeks for math and reading. We try to simulate the college process. They take the placement on the last day to see if they can place out. About 91 percent of students improved their test scores or tested out and 94 percent left the program feeling more prepared for college.

Why do you think tnAchieves students are graduating at a rate 50 percent greater than state averages?

GT: It comes back to the supports – the mentor, the meetings [students] go to. Students receive emails from us every week. Once they get into college and we start getting their grades and attendance, it becomes very targeted. It’s a level of support that not many other programs are able to provide. It’s setting the bar for higher education across the country. The money brings them to us, but the supports in place allow for the program to be successful.

Graham Thomas is currently the Deputy Director of Engagement and Partnerships for tnAchieves where he oversees the mentoring program, outreach efforts, and local advisory councils. He began working with knoxAchieves, now tnAchieves seven years ago. Graham graduated from the University of Tennessee. Find him on Twitter at @Graham_Thomas10.

Angela Saylor is a Tennessee native who graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and received her master of education from Belmont University. She works at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. She has been volunteering as a TNPromise mentor through tnAchieves since 2015, and is passionate about the way the program gives students the opportunity to transform their lives.

Mary Rose Fiona Uwimana is a TNPromise student at Nashville State Community College. She is majoring in psychology, and plans to go to Lipscomb University for her bachelor’s degree to become a pharmaceutical scientist.