Opening class of Tennessee Promise set
Gov. Bill Haslam said it was “like Christmas morning” when he visited the campus of Cleveland State Community College for its first day of classes.
After he had pitched the idea of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program in early 2014, he got to see some of the program’s first students begin classes Monday.
Haslam visited with students in a section of the college’s First Year Seminar class, meeting with freshmen who also represented the first Tennessee Promise class.
“For me, this is a little like Christmas morning,” Haslam said to the students.
Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program that allows students to receive last-dollar scholarship funds to attend a community college or Tennessee College of Applied Technology at no cost to them.
Cleveland State President Dr. Bill Seymour welcomed Haslam to the class and presented him with a blue T-shirt identical to the ones all the students were wearing. On the back, it said, “Thanks Gov: Tennessee Promise First Class.”
Haslam then conversed with the students, inviting them to ask him questions.
Some of the questions had to do with how the program began, while one student asked Haslam what he had studied in college.
Haslam said the idea came from the success of a similar program called KnoxAchieves. The former Knoxville mayor said he had begun looking at ways a similar program could be done statewide.
“We saw how well it worked,” Haslam said. “The number of kids who went to college had increased dramatically.”
Locally, a program called BradleyAchieves preceded Tennessee Promise, and was paid for by businessman Allan Jones.
On the state level, the Tennessee Promise program is funded with an endowment created with Tennessee Lottery proceeds.
While the message “Thanks Gov” was displayed on the T-shirts and TV screens around campus, Haslam told the students their state senators and representatives also deserve thanks for passing the law that made the program possible.
“I played just a small part in this,” Haslam said.
A student also asked him what he thought of President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide a free community college education to people nationwide.
Haslam said he sees a program like Tennessee Promise being “difficult” to implement on a national level, but he also noted some states are “copying” Tennessee by launching similar programs of their own.
He also gave the 60 or so students some questions of their own. Among those were whether or not they were the first in their families to attend college. About a dozen raised their hands.
The governor said he was glad to see students getting the opportunity to become first-generation college students.
After they got acquainted in class, Haslam and the students marched to the nearby student center on campus. The sidewalks were lined with Cleveland State faculty, staff and students who cheered and applauded as they walked by.
In remarks to a group gathered at the center, Seymour said he was excited to welcome the students for the first day.
While he explained the college had made numerous preparations over the summer, Seymour stressed “today really is all about the students.”
He then turned the podium over to two of those students.
Cleveland High School graduate Haley Hodgson said she had considered going straight to a four-year university to study elementary education.
However, she said she was grateful for the financial benefit of being able to get her first two years of college for free.
“It was such a blessing and relief,” Hodgson said.
She added she is still able to play her favorite sport — softball — and get involved in campus life even though she’s staying close to home.
Her classmate, Walker Valley High School graduate Matthew Bryant, spoke of how his mentor provided him with valuable help.
As part of the Tennessee Promise program, students are assigned volunteer mentors to help them navigate the college enrollment process.
Bryant said his mentor went above and beyond by helping him find an internship opportunity before he had even begun his freshman year.
Calling the program “remarkable,” he said Tennessee Promise was helping him further his education “at a low-cost budget.”
Seymour said the program has already begun to benefit the college itself, as its student enrollment has grown.
Preliminary numbers show the full-time student enrollment is up by 6.5 percent over last, he said. The number of freshmen is up 16 percent.
Seymour said this was great news for the college because it came after four consecutive years of decreasing enrollment.
The college president thanked all who helped make the Tennessee Promise program possible, and those who had helped the students as they started their college careers.
“It’s been a big team effort,” Seymour said.
Taking the stage after him, Haslam described seeing the first Tennessee Promise students as “the culmination of a dream and then a vision and then a plan.”
“We want to make sure we give everybody in Tennessee the opportunity to reach their full potential,” Haslam said.
He also noted it is important for businesses in Tennessee to have the skilled workers they need. Referencing the state’s “Drive to 55” initiative to see 55 percent of Tennesseans earn college degrees or certificates, he said that was based on the estimated number of jobs requiring college degrees.
“We knew we had to do something dramatic to change it,” Haslam said.
The governor said the idea that led to Tennessee Promise was a simple one: a desire to see more Tennesseans get more educational opportunities.
He then reiterated his statement that it was “like Christmas morning” to see students taking advantage of the program for the first time.
“The whole idea of Tennessee Promise is about success,” Haslam said. “The idea is literally about completion. … We could not be more excited about today, but we’re really, really excited about being back here for graduation.”
With what could be called some “Christmas morning” excitement, Haslam emphatically told the crowd at Cleveland State he would love to be the commencement speaker for its first graduating class with Tennessee Promise students.
Haslam encouraged the new college students to stay the course, and he said he hoped to see them again in two years as they graduate.