March #FindYourWhyTN Theme: Better Career, Brighter Future

I often hesitate to share my college story because it feels so different than the incredible stories we hear from our TN Promise students and the tnAchieves mentors that support them.

I was not a first-generation college student. Both of my parents went to college: my dad at UT-Martin and my mom at MTSU. I grew up in Franklin, TN in Williamson County, a county that outpaces the other 94 counties in our state in regards to college going and college attainment rates. I am a third-generation Franklin High School graduate. My grandfather’s Class of 1931 composite photo hung above my locker my freshman year. Education has always been important to my family. My other grandfather was the principal at Franklin Elementary School for 30 years. My dad began his career as a teacher at Northside Junior High School, now Brentwood Middle School.

It was expected that I go to college. In fact, I did not know that not attending was even an option. I remember asking a classmate toward the end of senior year where he was going to college. He took all honors classes and was a great student. I was shocked when he said he was not attending college the next fall. All of my friends were going. I did not understand.

I grew up with the University of Tennessee Volunteers on the family TV every Saturday in the fall. Not only did I know that I was going to college at a very early age, but I also knew where I was going to college. At one point in my senior year at Franklin High, thanks to some very good recruiters, I thought about attending Auburn or Miami. My dad laid the admissions booklets from UT, Auburn and Miami on the kitchen table and walked me through how much each cost, how much scholarship money I would get and how much my parents were willing to pay. My high school class was the first to be eligible to receive the Tennessee Hope Scholarship so that made my decision a very easy one.

While every data point suggested that I would go to college and graduate, UT was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was massive! There were times my freshman year – specifically biology and chemistry classes – where I did not think I could cut it academically. There were times I felt lost and a bit alone, even though I was living in the dorms with three of my best friends. Fortunately, I found my place on campus. For me, it was becoming involved in Greek life. I joined a fraternity, ultimately became president and made life-long friendships that I will cherish forever.

My advice to all college students is find something that makes you feel like you belong. If you are attending a large university, campus can feel overwhelming. Finding your group will help to shrink it and make it feel more manageable. Even our “small colleges” often are not that small. Finding your support group will make all the difference in your success as a college student.

I now realize just how fortunate I was to have the support system that I did growing up. College is not an assumption for many, and it took becoming a part of the tnAchieves team for me to understand this. I also understand that everyone’s path, struggles and challenges are different. I know that everyone faces their own hardships and I know that supports matter. The stories our students share and the successes they accomplish in the face of adversity will continue to drive me for the rest of my career. It is an absolute honor to get to do this work alongside such an incredible team and with thousands of volunteers that spend countless hours ensuring our students and program are successful!

Graham Thomas, Deputy Director of Partnerships

March Panel Discussion: Better Career, Brighter Future