For Jessica Quinton, life happened.
With eight hours of college credit earned, the Morristown East graduate left college to pursue other endeavors. However, a college education was never far from her mind.
Then life happened again. Ovarian cancer took over her body and left her with another fight to engage in.
“I got Stage III cancer. My doctor calls me a ‘walking miracle.’” Quinton said.
Still, a college education never left her thoughts. After winning the battle with a deadly disease, Quinton finally decided to turn her thoughts into actions. She found the vehicle to finishing her degree through the Tennessee Reconnect program, the state’s initiative to help adults enter higher education so that they may gain new skills, advance in the workplace and fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree or credential.
If students qualify, Tennessee Reconnect will pay tuition. To determine Tennessee Reconnect eligibility, students must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Students must be a Tennessee resident for one year, and enroll in at least six hours a semester leading to a certificate or associate degree. Students are ineligible if they have already earned a degree.
As one of eight communities across Tennessee, the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community offers free advising and resources to potential and current adult learners. Adults can already go back to a Tennessee College of Applied Technology institution tuition-free and official funding for attending a community college through Tennessee Reconnect. Students can use the TCAT Reconnect Grant at any of the 27 TCATs in the state. Students can use the Reconnect Grant at any of the state’s 13 community colleges.
Quinton wanted to continue her education when she relocated to Virginia for five years, moving back in 2007. However, she was unable to get in-state tuition during her time there. She said Tennessee Reconnect came along at the perfect time for her.
“I just knew it was time,” the 35-year old Walters State Community College sophomore said. “I couldn’t just go and pay for (tuition) myself, so when I found out (my degree) was going to be paid for, I had to go for it.”
Quinton, an Elementary Education major, is earning her Associate of Science at Walters State. Upon finishing, she will enter East Tennessee State University’s bachelor’s program. However, she will not have to take the hour-plus drive to Johnson City to complete her degree. She can complete the entire program without leaving Morristown – and do some student teaching along the way.
Quinton is making the most of her second chance. She was named to the Dean’s List after the fall semester, then the President’s List with a 4.0 grade point average after the spring semester – all while working a full-time job at Wal-Mart across the street.
“They work around your (college) schedule pretty well, but you have to manage your hours, work and school” said Quinton, who is also a full-time student at Walters State. “It gets hard at times, but I love school.
Teaching is a profession Quinton said was not in her life’s plans at first.
“I didn’t even know I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to study journalism,” she said.
Quinton said working at Wal-Mart can be an internship for teaching itself.
“From working in customer service, I’ve learned you have to work with people who aren’t always that nice,” she said.
Cancer robbed Quinton of a precious gift, but she said it also gave her a new outlook on life – and a new purpose for it.
“Cancer throws your whole life into a loop,” Quinton said. “You end up getting chemo-brain … Having ovarian cancer kept me from having kids. That’s what made me want to become a teacher.”
Quinton said teaching is the one profession where someone can positively influence a child’s life at its most formative levels, kindergarten through fourth grade.
“It only takes one person to change a kid’s life,” she said.
Quinton said the teaching path chose her, not the other way around. Despite the adversity, she said her experiences have made her a stronger and more focused person.
“Every struggle I’ve gone through has made (college) worth it. You become more focused.” Quinton said. “If I had gone into teaching earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to relate to the children as early as I can now.”
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