For most students, the first year of college is a time of exciting new beginnings, as well as academic and personal challenges.
For Kelsey Stovall, an application developer and analyst at BlueCross, her freshman year was no exception.
“I’m the first in my family to go to college,” she says. “My mom owns a salon and my dad’s side of the family has a body shop and a wrecker service, but I was always told, ‘You need to go to school, get a degree, and go work somewhere.’”
Kelsey attended public school until 10th grade, when she began homeschooling. For her final year of high school, she was dual enrolled, completing homeschool courses and college classes at Motlow State, a community college near her hometown of Fayetteville, TN.
When she enrolled at Motlow State, Kelsey was a few months shy of 17, making her the youngest student in her classes. Because her parents didn’t attend college, she had to navigate her first year – and all the paperwork and challenges that come with it – on her own.
“Learning how to do all of that without help was scary,” she says. “My parents wanted to help, but they didn’t know how to fill out the forms or choose classes. Thankfully, I figured it out, and there were some great people at Motlow who helped me do that.”
Inspired to help others
For her second year at Motlow State, Kelsey attended on a Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides funding for tuition and fees at community colleges and colleges of applied technology across the state.
Tennessee Promise scholarship recipients are paired with a mentor through its partner program, tnAchieves. These mentors help students stay motivated and on track to reach their educational goals by communicating with them via phone, email or text, reminding them about important deadlines and offering encouragement.
Kelsey had a tnAchieves mentor during her final year at Motlow State, and while she had settled into the college routine by then, she immediately knew she wanted to help other first-generation college students navigate their freshman year.
“Having a mentor during my first year would have been a lot of help,” she says. “When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a mentor, and I signed up as soon as I could.”
Becoming a mentor was a simple process with an impact that far exceeds its limited time commitment. Kelsey applied online through the tnAchieves website, then attended a training session, a high school meeting in the spring and a college meeting in the fall.
“They give you a list of all the important school deadlines and a handbook you can refer to if you have questions,” she says. “It’s really easy.”
Making a difference
Anyone who applies to be a mentor can choose the area where they’ll serve, and for Kelsey, that decision was easy – her hometown. Although she was living in Chattanooga and working at BlueCross as an intern in the information delivery department at the time, she was willing drive the nearly two hours to Fayetteville for the required meetings to help other students. She worked with students from the local high school who were transitioning to her alma mater, Motlow State.
After completing her training, most of Kelsey’s interactions with her students were over the phone.
“I spent less than an hour a week helping my mentees,” she says. “I’d mainly send texts telling them, ‘Hey, this deadline’s coming up’ or ‘Hey, you need to sign up for classes – don’t forget.’”
Of course, she’s provided a bit of extra support and advice. She got each of her mentees a planner and included a printout of their school schedule, as well as a list of discounts for services like Amazon and Spotify, things she used herself while she was at Motlow.
“Another thing I shared was how to save on textbooks,” she adds. “A lot of students who have never been to college, or who don’t have family members or parents who went, don’t realize how much textbooks cost or that they can rent them online. I wish I knew that my first semester. I spent $350 on one textbook.”
Kelsey has a special connection with her mentees, and she says her recent college experience a lot to do with that.
“That’s one of my strengths as a younger mentor, and part of the reason I decided to mentor in Lincoln County,” she says. “I went to their school, so I have a lot of insight. I know I’m of help to the people I mentor because I’ve done it before, and it was pretty recent.”
Giving back by giving her timeFor Kelsey, being a tnAchieves mentor is a small commitment that’s highly rewarding.
“One of my favorite things as a mentor was when I was sitting in one of my training meetings, and the mentor next to me was Debra Smith, my advisor when I was at Motlow State,” she recalls. “Telling her where I’d been and knowing that the kids I’m mentoring were about to embark on the same journey was just awesome.”
“I saw Kelsey at the tnAchieves mentor meeting,” Debra says. “She was sitting at the table with me, and I thought about what a great example she will be for her mentees. I love to see former students circling back to help others. I’m proud to have known Kelsey and to have been part of her experience at Motlow.”
Since Kelsey became a tnAchieves mentor, she’s been hired full-time at BlueCross, and she’ll receive her degree in computer science from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the spring. And while she’s on track to achieve her educational and career goals, she’ll never forget where she came from or the people who helped her get there.
“Motlow State was good for me, and it came at a time in my life when I really needed it,” she says. “I wanted to do something for my hometown and give back to these students, as well.”
If you are interested in becoming a mentor for the tnAchieves class of 2020, apply online by Friday, December 6, 2019.