July #FindYourWhyTN Theme: To Be Successful

As I began my senior year of high school in 2009, college was an “if” not a “where.” I had older friends that had pursued college, mostly through athletics, but I would be the first person in my family to go. Seeing my friends go to college inspired me to research different institutions, but I had no idea where to start. I would visit a college’s website, see the estimated cost of attendance and instantly close my browser. I was intimidated by the thought of going to college, but I knew that to find success in the future I needed to go to college right after graduation.

During the fall of my senior year, my school counselor connected me with a new program called knoxAchieves. The program aimed to help students navigate the college process, provided a local mentor who could answer questions and (the part that caught my eye) cover the cost of tuition at Pellissippi State Community College. I remember feeling optimistic and confident about college for the first time. I applied to the program not knowing what was next. All I knew is that knoxAchieves seemed like the program that would help me make a positive step after high school.

A few weeks passed and it was announced that the names of the first recipients of the knoxAchieves scholarship were taped to the window of the counselors’ office. I remember hurrying to the office between classes and seeing my name listed. That was an important moment in my journey to and through college! I knew what my first step was.

The following months were vital. I met with my mentor. I learned about the FAFSA. I learned that I had to actually complete a college application to go to college (until that point, I assumed the knoxAchieves application was my college application.). I attended knoxAchieves orientation at Pellissippi State, where I met the team, registered for classes and began building relationships with other students. Having that structured pathway to college ensured that I made the transition successfully and did not succumb to the temptation to give up over the summer.

In August 2010, I started classes at Pellissippi State. In many ways, I found success. I also learned about failure and the lifelong journey of perfecting time management. I continued to engage with knoxAchieves, serving as a student ambassador helping other students acclimate to college. After finishing my associate’s degree at Pellissippi in 2011, I transferred to Austin Peay State University where I earned my bachelor’s degree. My time at Austin Peay was transformational because I had the confidence to pursue leadership opportunities and engage with campus leaders. My experience with knoxAchieves (which had now become tnAchieves) set me up for success, gave me a safety net when things got hard and connected me with a community college in my backyard where I learned how to be a college student. Without knoxAchieves, I would not have started college, much less finished.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to speak before the Tennessee House of Representatives sharing my experience with knoxAchieves/tnAchieves and advocating for the creation of the TN Promise scholarship. A few months later, following the passing of the TN Promise Scholarship, I joined the tnAchieves team professionally. Today, I am passionate about providing the same opportunities I received to students across Tennessee.

My experience as a first-generation college student is not unique. tnAchieves has provided the same pathway for thousands of students since 2009 that relieved my intimidation and gave me the confidence to take the next step. I want to say thank you to the thousands of tnAchieves stakeholders that ensure our students find success in the classroom and beyond. As a state, we are better because so many people are involved in the college journey of Tennessee students!

Ben Sterling
tnAchieves Senior Director of Content 

Learn More About Ben

 View the July #FindYourWhyTN Panel