As student success manager for the BlueSky Tennessee Institute, Melissa Graham believes her current work is a natural progression for a career built on helping others realize their untapped potential.
“Every role has felt like part of my life’s assignment,” she says. “I benefited from so many programs, resources, and people who led me to not only be a first-generation college student, but to success in my life, career-wise and personally.”
A commitment to conversation
Melissa’s gift for connecting with others is the result of formative years spent moving around the country as part of a military family. Her father, a Marine, was stationed in her birthplace of Honolulu, and every few years she’d have to start fresh, making new friends, getting adjusted to a new state, and learning new norms for different communities.
At age 10, Melissa and her parents settled in Memphis, the city she still considers home. There, she developed a love for daytime talk shows, marveling at the hosts’ ability to relate to guests of all experiences and backgrounds.
“I would run home from cheer practice to watch Oprah at 4 p.m.,” she recalls. “Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, they all showed me the unique lifestyles and perspectives of different individuals. I learned a lot about listening, engaging and treating everyone as equal.”
But hosting a show of her own wouldn’t be part of Melissa’s assignment. She knew she wanted to apply her talent for connecting with people but wasn’t quite sure what that looked like. After graduating high school, she took a leap, moving five hours away to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on an academic scholarship. There, her commitment to counseling students developed.
An unforeseen challenge
While pursuing a psychology degree at UTC, Melissa found herself in an unexpected role — expecting mom.
“I became pregnant with my first child while enrolled in college,” she says. “I was able to graduate and then give birth. It was difficult, as I was five hours away from my family. I’d planned to jump right into a graduate program, but I took a year off from school. At the time, I was angry about getting off the path I saw for myself and not knowing how to return to it.”
Melissa worked with student support services at UTC as she prepared for her return to school after her son turned a year old. The support services director not only saw Melissa’s potential, but offered her own counsel, as well.
“She saw me for who I was and told me, ‘Your path just looks different. How you get there is different, but the destination is the same,’” Melissa recalls. “She asked me to join her staff and support those students coming behind me. It meant a lot for her to encourage me in that way, and to give me the opportunity to get some professional experience under my belt.”
For three years, Melissa worked in the student support services office, observing staff navigate students through unexpected challenges and prepare for next steps. She also had the opportunity to observe counseling at a local high school.
“I fell in love with that role and thought, ‘That’s a perfect fit for me,’” Melissa remembers. “I decided after earning my bachelor’s in psychology that my next step was entering the master’s in school counseling program.”
While simultaneously working toward her master’s and working in student support services, Melissa was able to mentor first-generation college students like herself. When she moved to a role with Hamilton County Schools, one of her takeaways from her time at UTC — and from the director who lifted her up — was how crucial it is to sit someone down and tell them all that they have to offer.
Using her voice to help others find theirs
It may seem old-fashioned, particularly in an age of virtual meetings and communication, but Melissa remains a firm believer in the power of one-on-one, face-to-face interactions.
“All middle and high school students, no matter their circumstances, are going through a unique time,” she says. “They’re trying to find some identity and their place in life. A lesson I learned is to say out loud the gifts that I see in them.”
At these ages many students aren’t self-aware, and even simple verbal encouragement goes a long way.
“It can be me telling them, ‘Hey, you have an eye for fashion and design,’ or ‘Hey, in every group setting, I’ve seen you rise as a leader,’” she adds. “Sharing that with them out loud may be the first time they’re hearing it, and the first time they’re making those connections about who they are.”
“I’m real and I’m dependable,” she says. “All I can do is be exactly who I was created to be, and make sure that when I’m working with students, parents or the community, I follow through with what I say I’m going to do, and I do it consistently.”
Her assignment’s next phase
That drive for authenticity, encouragement and opportunities for students brought Melissa to BlueCross and the BlueSky Institute.
Through a partnership with East Tennessee State University, the program was conceived to develop a pipeline for much-needed information technology talent and provide a viable career path for local students. It offers eligible high school graduates in Tennessee the opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Science in Computing, Concentration in Information Systems in 27 months.
These students also gain hands-on, real-world experience by learning and working at the BlueCross headquarters in Chattanooga, progressing to paid internships and potential job offers as they develop their skills.
Melissa learned of the student success manager position while on maternity leave from Hamilton County Schools.
“I never would have come across this opportunity had it not been for a sleepless night after the birth of my third child,” she says. “I was scrolling on my phone and saw this position posted. I clicked on it out of curiosity because it said ‘student success.’ I call it a ‘God wink’ moment.”
Melissa saw BlueSky Institute’s potential to have a multi-generational impact not just on families, but on Tennessee communities. As student success manager she develops, implements, and coordinates support services and resources for the program’s students.
“With this being an accelerated college degree, we know our support needs to be more extensive than what a typical college student would receive,” she says. “It’s challenging enough to graduate in four or five years. In 27 months, our students are likely going to run into some hiccups.”
To address these on the front end, Melissa has outlined four key areas of support:
- Academic: “I have access to ETSU systems for academic monitoring and will have ongoing communication with faculty and students. I’ll sit weekly with each student to check in and see physically, mentally and academically where they are and where they’re headed.”
- Social: “We want students to feel like they have an ETSU community at BlueSky Institute, a sense of belonging to a university. My job is to create those experiences, whether we go to ETSU for signature events, engage in community service together in Chattanooga, or have outings and create experiences as a cohort. The mentoring component will play into this, as well.”
- Personal and professional development: “We have a robust offering of seminars and workshops from both the BlueCross side and ETSU’s academic and career center. Students will also earn paid internships within our information security department while in the program. These will ensure students are ready for the professional world and ready to give back to their communities on Day One when they go out with that degree.”
- Crisis management: “As students run into challenging situations, I’ll help connect them to resources. For example, students will have access to ETSU counseling and emergency mental health supports. There are many different reasons students may run into barriers, and we want to eliminate as many of those as possible.”
Melissa views the role as a roughly 60/40 split between one-on-one support with students and group experiences such as mentoring luncheons or community outreach.
“Nothing is off-limits, as far as what they can come in and tell me they need,” she adds. “I have an open-door policy every day, all day.”
BlueSky Institute: about to take flight
Melissa will welcome her first students through that door this coming August. She and BlueSky Institute Executive Director Bradley Leon recently visited seniors at Chattanooga-area high schools to notify them of their acceptance to the program’s inaugural class.
While it’s not yet possible to predict BlueSky Institute’s success, Melissa’s already learned two things during her time with the program.
“One, I’ve had many conversations around what type of student we think would be successful in the BlueSky Institute, and right now it’s all about the drive a student has,” she says. “Two, the hope is that the success of this program isn’t kept within Chattanooga, and that we’ll see this model replicated across the nation.”
That part of her life’s assignment is in the back of her mind. For now, she’s starting small and planting seeds for student success.
“I have to be intentional in planting those seeds, watering them and helping them grow into confident young adults,” she says. “I see the amazing characteristics in others, and I want them to see their potential, as well. This may open mental doors and asking themselves, ‘Wow, what all can I do with this skill or natural talent, and where could it take me?’ I want students to start tapping into that.”
“Working with that has put me in a place where, as long as I can continue to plant and water those seeds, I’m where I’m supposed to be.”