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Opening doors for Tennessee students

Originally published in The Tennessean, August 2017

In the abstract, it’s easy to agree that mentoring is a good thing – that young people have a better chance of succeeding when they have the opportunity to learn from those who walk before them.

After seeing firsthand how businesses and community partners can come together to create new opportunities, I’m more convinced than ever.

Over the past two summers, I’ve gotten to know a young man named Christian, who attended my high school in Chattanooga and is now studying at my alma mater, Middle Tennessee State University.

He worked at BlueCross through an internship program called STEP-UP Chattanooga, which is led by the Public Education Foundation and supported by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation and the Benwood Foundation.

In its second year, STEP-UP provided nearly 300 Chattanooga students with business skills training and the opportunity to compete for paid summer jobs. Of those students, 153 earned positions with 97 local companies. Both the number of students placed and the number of businesses participating doubled from the first year.

Christian joined STEP-UP with a desire to gain communications experience, expecting to be placed with a newspaper or TV station. He didn’t realize that companies like BlueCross offer career paths aligned with his interests.

In his first summer with us, Christian interned with our community relations team. He’s since added nonprofit management as a minor so that he can pursue a career in that arena. STEP-UP changed the course of his future, but there are benefits for businesses, too.

If you talk to people who’ve hired STEP-UP interns, you’ll hear about the students’ hard work, fresh ideas and new energy.

And long-term, we’re developing a talent pipeline our communities need to succeed.

There are similar efforts underway across the state, including MPLOY in Memphis and Nashville’s Opportunity NOW.

Considering career opportunities is important, but navigating the college admissions process is also a significant hurdle for many students. The tnAchieves program has been meeting that need by providing mentors to high school seniors since 2008, when it launched in Knox County with around 500 students.

Each mentor spends 10-15 hours over the course of a student’s senior year and works with 5-10 students, helping them complete college and financial aid applications, and staying in touch every two weeks to encourage their progress.

Participating students are asked to give back to their own communities in return. Since the program began, they have completed over 1 million hours of volunteer service.

tnAchieves has grown exponentially, expanding to 85 counties around the state and becoming a partner organization for the TN Promise scholarship. The tnAchieves class of 2017 included more than 60,000 students and 9,100 mentors.

Thirty percent of those mentors came from the business sector, representing companies of all sizes – including BlueCross, which had 102 employee mentors. As tnAchieves students enter the workforce a few years from now, they’ll have connections that may be able to open doors for them.

When students, regardless of their background, can envision and achieve new futures for themselves, we all win.

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