Tennessee Promise Mentors Take on Life-Changing Roles

Gallatin High senior Jamaciona Watkins, right, listens during the first student-mentor meeting for Tennessee Promise at the school on Tuesday. (Photo: photos by DESSISLAVA YANKOVA / staff)

Dessislava Yankova, The Tennessean

Mentors learned one interesting thing about their Tennessee Promise students during their first meeting Tuesday.

“They wanted to be contacted by text messages,” mentor David Gregory said after the meeting. “They said they can check and reply to text much quicker than to email.”

A Hendersonville resident, Gregory is one of 50 mentors that met with some 350 students and parents at Gallatin High School as part of the newly launched Tennessee Promise program.

Beginning with the class of 2015, the scholarship program provides two years tuition-free education at a state community college or technical school. Tennessee Promise recently inspired President Barack Obama to pitch this month a similar nationwide program, America’s College Promise.

Recruiting enough mentors was one of the last preparation steps for the program, a new more affordable and mentor-driven approach to education.

9,000 mentors statewide

The original goal of 6,000 mentors had to be increased to 9,000 after a significant boost in the number of applicants, said Ann Massa, regional coordinator with TN Achieves that administers the program.

“We definitely got close to our goal,” Massa said Tuesday.

After the program’s Nov. 1 deadline, about 57,000 students had expressed interest in the program.

“A lot of students created a username and password, and thought that was all that was required,” Massa said. “We wanted to give everyone a chance to complete the full application.”

The deadline was therefore reopened in December, leading the total applicants to reach 58,806, with 1,950 of them in Sumner County, said Jason Seay, director of outreach and college access with the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. that handles state financial aid programs.

Sumner ranks sixth in number of applicants with Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties as the top three, TSAC data show.

Investing in success

Tuesday’s gathering was the first local student-mentor meeting as part of a series at every public high school to last through March. Program leaders reminded applicants of the Feb. 15 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) deadline and other upcoming important dates that students don’t want to miss.

“There are mandatory requirements you have to complete to receive the Tennessee Promise scholarship,” Massa said. “If they miss one of these requirements, they will be dropped out of the program. We’re notifying them throughout the process many, many times.”

The goal for each mentor to have between five and 10 students was met, said Massa, depending on individuals’ availability. The unpaid mentorship commitment, however, should vary between 10 and 15 hours annually across all students.

Mentors are to remind students about upcoming deadlines and direct them toward the appropriate college channels among other basic responsibilities.

“We call mentors ‘task masters’ and ‘cheerleaders,’ ” Massa said. “They’re helping students to successfully transfer from high school to college — just providing support and letting them know that someone is investing in their success.”

Gregory, a vice chancellor for administration with the Tennessee Board of Regents that oversees the state’s public higher education institutions, said he decided to mentor after realizing how vital such support is when he attended college.

“My brother and I were first-generation college graduates, and he was my mentor,” said Gregory, who will guide five students. “I believe that some people need someone to help them have the confidence and understand that they can be successful.”

It was natural for Marcie Lackey, a guidance counselor at GHS, to volunteer as a mentor.

“It’s an advantage to already be in school with my students,” said Lackey, who will mentor eight children. “I’ll spend more time with them. I never dreamed that so many students would be here tonight.”

Reach Dessislava Yankova at 615-575-7170 and on Twitter @desspor.


Top counties for TN Promise applications

Shelby: 8,279

Davidson: 4,245

Knox: 3,706

Rutherford: 2,560

Hamilton: 2,386

Sumner: 1,950

Williamson: 1,588

Montgomery: 1,553

Wilson: 1,477

Sullivan: 1,383

Source: Tennessee Student Assistance Corp.



By the numbers

58,806 applicants

9,000 mentors

5-10 students per mentor

10-15-hour commitment

400 people attend Tuesday meeting


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