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Why we believe 32 high school students represent the future of our company

Originally published in The Tennessean, May 2022

Recently, I watched a select group of Hamilton County high school students take the stage at the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters. One at a time, in front of beaming family members, friends and civil servants, they formally committed to pursue a 27-month bachelor’s degree over a traditional college experience.

During that signing event, my heart was full — and it remains so. I witnessed the evolution of the BlueSky Tennessee Institute from an idea to an initiative unfolding in front of us. 

Creating career pathways

BlueSky Institute is designed to foster locally the advanced technology talent BlueCross needs to serve our customers, communities and business partners. The program is different because it’s built on:

  • real-world experience with technology
  • professional mentorships from BlueCross staff

Through our partnership with East Tennessee State University and its accredited computing curriculum, the program gives students the chance to earn:

  • an accelerated bachelor’s degree in just over two years
  • a job offer from BlueCross

Our signing event offered proof of two things. First, there’s demand for our unique and replicable model. Next, these students’ lives will be changed by embracing the promise of the BlueSky Institute.

We were expecting 15 students in our first cohort. Thirty-two committed. They come from different backgrounds, but they’re all Tennesseans — and exceptional students.  Their enthusiasm is contagious, and we plan to build on this momentum when they join us on campus for classes in August.

On signing day, several of their stories stood out.

Aimen Shahbaz moved to Tennessee from Pakistan in 2020. She was unsure about what she wanted in a career. But she learned about BlueSky Institute after enrolling in the Public Education Foundation’s Camp College readiness program and found the opportunity to develop technology skills that will eventually allow her to support her family and others in the community.

Denis Crnalic was joined by his father, Amir, who said the day was “a dream come true.” A father of three sons, Amir couldn’t be prouder that Denis is the first going to college. Denis himself said he hopes his three-year plan ends with him being part of BlueCross.

Sandra Meija also attended with her father, Berzain, who speaks English as a second language. Sandra stepped in on behalf of our communications team and posed questions about the event to him in Spanish. Watching him respond to “What does it mean for you to see me here?” with abundant joy was a deeply moving moment.

Meeting a business need

We know the difference this opportunity will make in the lives of these students. But it began as and remains a critical business investment. Technology is a growing area where we add value for our members. It’s how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors, it’s how we find new ways to lower costs and it’s increasingly where we hire. Our CEO JD Hickey has said that to succeed over the long-term, we must secure our talent pipeline.

We expect that after 27 months, our students will have not only have earned a bachelor’s degree, but a sense of purpose and leadership potential gleaned from collaboration and mentorship with teams on our Chattanooga campus.

They’ll have challenged us to create better solutions in how we serve our members.

This is where we seek to be a model for other companies not just in Tennessee, but across the country. Putting people into meaningful careers can help solve pain points like retention — and help companies with an ever-growing need for tech expertise.

We see these students as the future leaders of our company. But beyond that, we hope other organizations will see the value in cultivating and investing in homegrown talent.

About Bradley Leon, Executive Director, BlueSky Tennessee Institute

A photo of the authorBradley Leon is executive director of the BlueSky Tennessee Institute. He is responsible for leading this groundbreaking workforce development program, which offers students the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree in computing and a job offer from BlueCross in just over two years.

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