By Dr. Tony Miksa
Soon, the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” will fill the Walters State Expo Center as we celebrate over 600 graduates this spring, our second commencement of this academic year. We are making preparations to mark this special occasion for our students and for hosting thousands of family members and friends coming to cheer them on.
I enjoy graduation because it’s a day for celebrating the commitment, hard work and sacrifice that individuals from our community have made to earn a college degree. This day also is a tangible reminder that Walters State is fulfilling its mission of increasing the educational attainment level in our region.
Like past graduations, this 54th class of graduates includes students who have taken advantage of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which requires students who recently graduated from high school to complete community service and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average. In return, the state pays any tuition not covered by other state and federal financial aid.
The success of this program has led to a new, transformative program for adult students, a group that has often faced challenges in paying for their education. Through this new program, called Tennessee Reconnect, adult students who do not already have a degree can attend Walters State tuition free starting this fall. This scholarship program will remove a financial barrier many adult students face in trying to earn their college degree and become more employable.
Walters State is already serving adults interested in Tennessee Reconnect through workshops that help prepare them for the rigorous course work of college. We have also developed and designed academic programs specifically for adult students in numerous majors — including computer networking, EMT, health information management and manufacturing, to name a few.
Removing barriers and giving citizens access to education helps our region by increasing the number of individuals with a college degree, which makes our community more attractive to businesses and industries. For example, Van Hool, a Belgian manufacturer of buses and coaches, recently broke ground to locate its North American headquarters in Morristown. During the next five years, the company will invest over $50 million and bring more than 1,000 jobs to our community. An excellent education system, from primary school through higher education, was cited by Van Hool as a reason for choosing Morristown.
Individuals who earn a college degree or certificate will earn roughly $1 million more during their lifetime — which can go a long way toward helping families pay for housing, cars, health care and education for their children. A college degree means more, however, than just earning a larger lifetime income. Individuals with a college education are statistically more engaged in their communities and tend to lead healthier, longer lives.
Our commencement on May 5 will involve the usual excitement, cheering and tears of joy from students and their families and friends. What’s different this year is knowing that adults attending graduation, who do not yet have a college degree, now have the opportunity to earn a degree tuition free. If you attend graduation but haven’t earned a college degree, my hope is that you will be inspired to one day walk across the stage and receive your degree like the family member or friend you will be supporting on May 5.
Dr. Tony Miksa is president of Walters State Community College. For more information or to become a mentor, visit www.tnachieves.org.