State-Trained Mentors Try To Make The Road To Free Community College Less Confusing
Ritchie Francisco, a freshman at Volunteer State, signs a poster that says he's committed to finishing college. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

State-Trained Mentors Try To Make The Road To Free Community College Less Confusing

Ritchie Francisco, a freshman at Volunteer State, signs a poster that says he's committed to finishing college. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN
Ritchie Francisco, a freshman at Volunteer State, signs a poster that says he’s committed to finishing college. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

In the lobby of Volunteer State Community College, students are signing a poster to signify their commitment to graduating. Savannah Tripp, 21, is two classes away, but she says for many students, just getting to college can be a struggle.

“You have to have so much stuff, like shot records, transcripts, financial aid stuff. There were times when I was like, I really don’t know what I’m doing,” she says. She even thought about giving up along the way, she says.

That’s a problem that state officials are very aware of. As of Tuesday, 44,000 high school seniors had signed up for Tennessee Promise, the new state scholarship that will send students to community college for free. But they still have a lot to do before their first day of class, including filling out financial aid forms, applying to a specific campus or completing the program’s required community service.

So how can the state keep students on the path to college? That’s where mentors come in, says Kaci Murley.

Murley is the director of college completion with Tennessee Achieves, an organization that is training mentors around the state. She tells a group of volunteers in Robertson County what their job will entail — largely, sending their students reminder emails and text messages.

“ ‘Hey, have you filled out that application? Remember this deadline is coming up.’ We often say, we are just a program of harassment,” she says with a laugh. “I mean that in the best way possible.”

Murley says many high school seniors who are applying to Tennessee Promise are like she was — the first in her family to go to college, without family members who know how to help. “I remember how confusing and intimidating this process was,” she says.

Gentle “harassment,” as she calls it, can keep kids from giving up. Often, it’s just one minor hiccup that derails them, she says. The mentors aren’t expected to put in a lot of time — only about an hour a month. But she says, in years past, when she’s trained mentors for this kind of role, she’s found even the smallest amount of encouragement makes a difference.

“Some things that might seem very obvious to us, that you have to apply to college, or you actually have to fill out that entire FAFSA correctly, are things that are not as obvious to our students who might not have that person in their life who knows how to navigate that college process,” she says.

So far, the state doesn’t have as many mentors as it would like. Originally, it was hoping to have one mentor for every five students. But the number of Tennessee Promise signups is double what the state’s original expectation of 20,000 students. A spokesman for Tennessee Achieves says they’d like to find about 1,500 more mentors statewide.

Paul Kidd is a business consultant from Robertson County, where only one in four people have even a two-year degree. At a recent mentor training day, he says he volunteered to be a mentor because he, too, knows what it’s like to be a first-generation college student.

“Be another person there, to say, ‘It’s ok. Everybody goes through this. Persevere and you will get through it,’” he says.

The deadline for mentors is Nov. 1, but they won’t start working with students until January — after the Tennessee Promise deadline, but before community college applications are due.

Emily Siner

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter: @SinerSays
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