Everyone deserves a shot at college, but in Memphis, it’s practically a crime if a graduating high school student who wants to doesn’t go on to higher education. That’s because one of the biggest roadblocks keeping college degrees out of young American’s hands – cost – is not a factor in Tennessee.
“In the state of Tennessee,” explains Jared Bulluck, Senior Director of Community and Alumni Engagement at Leadership Memphis, “it’s basically free to go to two-year college. Anybody, everybody. It’s free.” That’s thanks to a relatively new program called Tennessee Achieves, which will send any student to a two-year college, so long as that student maintains a C-average, sticks it out in consecutive semesters, performs a bit of community service, and meets regularly with a mentor.
Pretty good deal.
seeing is believing
That’s why Bulluck and his team at Leadership Memphis, a nonprofit whose mission is to prepare and mobilize leaders to work together for the good of the whole community, have teamed up with their “executive class” of alum volunteers to make college a reality for students at eight Shelby County schools.
First step? College tours. Like so many big transitions and leaps in life, the jump to college can be terrifying – even more so for someone aspiring to become a first-generation college grad, or someone who may never have ventured far beyond his or her neighborhood. To visit campuses, walk around, chat with students, pop in on classes, get a handle on how things work… well, less scary, right?
“These kids don’t really know what’s out there and what’s available besides your University of Memphis and your Southwest Tennessee Community College,” explains Bulluck. “They don’t know what else is available, because these kids, sometimes they don’t leave their neighborhoods. There’s not a whole lot of money. So they don’t really get out.”
Last year was the first year that Bulluck and his team – with generous funding from the Turley Family Foundation – made college tours a reality for their eight target schools, and the program was such a hit that they’re doubling down this year to a raise $77k (they exceeded their goal and hit $60k last year) and serve twice as many students: about 750 to last year’s 500 plus.
“Honestly,” says Bulluck of last year’s fundraising effort, “it wasn’t a hard sell to these folks, because they saw the value in it, they understand it, they went through Leadership Memphis, they understand what the importance of going to college is and what it does for the area. There’s not a single alum we can’t call upon. And 90% of the time, they’re going to say yes, and they’re going to get behind it, and help out any way they possibly can, whether it’s financially or with their time, which is actually more important and valuable in my mind.”
It’s worth noting that Bulluck himself is evidence of how strong a network Leadership Memphis truly is. He first got involved when he was a student at the University of Memphis, through a mentor of his. “So I signed up as an intern,” he says, laughing, “and five years later: Senior Director of Community and Alumni Engagement. I stuck around.”
So where do the kids go on these tours? Where don’t they go.
“We’ll go to private schools,” says Bulluck, “we’ll go to public schools, we’ll go to community college, we’ll go to military schools, we’ll go to technical trade schools.” He and his team want to put as many new options on the map as they can for their students.
“And we actually ask the kids where they want to go,” he adds. “They love it. Their eyes are just really opened. The really neat thing that I like to see is when kids always assume that there’s just University of Memphis and Southwest, and they don’t realize that going to a technical or trade school you can be making upwards of 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars being a welder, a plumber. The realization that that exists, as opposed to just getting a four-year degree, and then once you have that degree, you still have to figure out what you want to do.”
To learn more, to get involved, or to donate, check out the team’s ioby campaign page here. When you donate, your money goes directly towards covering transportation (by bus), food, and hotel expenses. If you donate $30, the Turley Family Foundation will match you at a 1:2 ratio, giving $15 – that’s $45, which covers one student for a local tour. Want to send a student further afield, on the regional tour? If you cover $300, the Turley Family Foundaion will pitch in the remaining $150.
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Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Want more Memphis? Like local activism, pro wrestling, or music? Check out this piece about how Soul City and people like you are bringing the Mid-South Coliseum back to life.