Local students eligible for TN Promise scholarships still need nearly 100 mentors to help them navigate the transition from high school to college.

Most of the students eligible for the scholarships are the first in their family to attend college, so mentors through the nonprofit tnAchieves organization guide them through the process of applying to colleges and for financial aid.

TN Promise scholarships provide the “last dollar’ amounts for tuition and mandatory fees, after other funding, for students to attend Tennessee community colleges and colleges of applied technology. In its first year, the program led to about 4,000 new students entering college across the state.

Mentors must be 21 and pass a background check but don’t need any postsecondary education experience. Training and other resources are provided through tnAchieves. The deadline to apply is Nov. 20.

Cathy Hammon has served as mentor through tnAchieves for seven years. “I have a passion about education,” she said. “I have experienced firsthand the doors it opens.”

An Hour a Month

Although each mentor works with five to 10 students, it generally takes less than an hour a month.

Mentors receive an hour of training and must attend two one-hour meetings with the students. Every two weeks the mentor contacts students by phone, email or text, and many students prefer texts.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time to send a text,” Hammon said.

She chooses to meet her mentees face to face as soon as they are assigned to her, but that isn’t part of the requirements.

“The handbook walks a mentor and a student through step-by-step what has to happen,” Hammon said.

“One of our biggest jobs is to build confidence in the children and their families,” she said.

They may not understand terms such as “credit hour” and be overwhelmed by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to determine eligibility for federal and state financial aid programs.

“That FAFSA form can be incredibly intimidating for a family who has never seen it,” Hammon said.

The mentor isn’t expected to solve student’s problems but to remind them of deadlines, point them to resources such as FAFSA help sessions and guide them to overcome obstacles that might derail them.

Students may drop out for numerous reasons, from choosing to attend a four-year institution, which isn’t eligible for one of the scholarships, to being eliminated because they don’t meet one of the requirements, which include meeting deadlines and completing community service.

However, Hammon quotes the executive director of tnAchieves, Krissy DeAlejandro, who says in the mentor handbook, “This is not a numbers game. Helping just one student enroll in college is a major accomplishment!”

“It is deeply rewarding work,” Hamon said.

The mentor also notes the community impact of increasing the education levels of residents. “It’s one of the most important economic development tools we have,” she said.

The governor’s Drive to 55 aims for 55 percent of adults to have a college degree or certificate by 2025. The estimated financial impact of reaching that goal would be an additional $146.9 million in income in Blount County, where only about 38 percent currently have that level of education.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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