Since locating a campus in Morristown in the late 1990s, Tusculum University has served a growing segment of college students: those who are attending college as the first of their family to do so.
More than 50 percent of today’s Tusculum University students are first-generation college students.
Tusculum’s Morristown campus, located at the HealthStar Physicians Complex at 420 West Morris Blvd, held First Scholars Appreciation activities with food and talks by Tusculum personnel.
By definition, a first-generation student does not have a parent or guardian who has earned a bachelor’s degree, said Rachael Barnett, director of Tusculum’s Student Support Services program. Tusculum has two Student Support Services programs that receive more than $500,000 total in grants and serve 340 traditional as well as adult and online students.
Student Support Services is a U.S. Department of Education TRIO program that has served first-generation and low-income students and those with disabilities at Tusculum since 1997. TRIO consists of federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Tusculum also hosts additional TRIO programs, including three Upward Bound programs and two Educational Talent Search programs, serving first-generation middle and high-school students from the local community.
“We had programs on campus that supported first-generation students,” Rachel Barnett, director of student support services at Tusculum said. “This year we decided to celebrate those students. More than 50 percent of the students enrolled at Tusculum are first-generation students, so is a lot of our faculty and staff. More students are starting out with pursuit of their associate’s degree, followed by their bachelor’s degree.”
The Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs are also a big help, according to Barnett.
“It’s kind of a good marriage,” Barnett said. “Our programs are part of the federal TRIO programs.”
“Tusculum has had a long history supporting students in our community,” Barnett said. “We’re celebrating a community of achievers for the first time this year. We hope that these events bring awareness to the community and acknowledge the students who are the first in their family to attend college.”
Hancock County native Peggy Brewer received her bachelors in organizational management in 1989.
“My mother was a taskmaster, we had to do everything with quality, excellence and perfection,” Brewer said. “That could be a problem, especially the perfection part. She expected a lot of us to perform and meet her demands. She encouraged us to go to college, to improve ourselves always. I grew up in Hancock County, one of the poorest counties in the state. However, they had good teachers in high school. They encouraged us to go to school as well.”
Brewer bucked against the trend of going to college as she married out of high school. She went to business college for a year, then went to work. She started classes that would help in her work at the time, not progressing toward a degree.
Around 10 years later, Brewer’s sister graduated from high school. Brewer made it her mission to get her sister into college.
“I even paid some of her expenses to go because it was a hardship on our parents,” Brewer said.
Brewer enrolled at Tusculum and found she lacked core classes to get her degree. She was working all day and studying at night.
“In addition to my Tusculum classes, my meetings once a week and my study group twice a week, I was taking about five additional classes for core credit,” Brewer said. “By doing that, that allowed me to do research and write papers on my life experiences.”
Since Brewer’s graduation, she has been serving on the Tusculum Alumni Executive Board.
Morristown City Councilmember Kay Senter also spoke on education.
“All of these first-generation students over here are studying to be teachers,” Senter said. “I think it’s really something for education. It is interesting that Tusculum was founded in 1794, two years before Tennessee became a state. You are called Pioneers for a reason.”
Senter said that having Tusculum College in Morristown means there will be educated citizens who will be prepared to go out and get jobs.
“We have industries who are coming in that are looking for individuals who are dedicated to bettering themselves,” Senter said.
Tusculum Dean of Students Dr. Sherry Dellinger talked about her duties.
“As the dean of students, I’m your dean as well,” Dellinger said. “Teaching is a rite of passage. Teachers, you are doing the most important job in the world. Without you, there would be no doctors, physicians, entrepreneurs or anything you’re thinking about. You have to teach them that they have to start somewhere. Those who can do more teach.”
Dellinger said that she was a first generation college student in Indiana. When she asked about going to college, her high school guidance counselor told her that she “would never get into college.”
After her initial shock, she was determined to prove that counselor wrong.
“There weren’t a lot of congratulations from my family, there was ‘how do you expect us to pay for this’ and ‘who is going to help do what you do on the farm?’ Other students were saying that their parents were helping them pack up and sending them to orientation. For school, I didn’t get any of that, I just got these looks of kind of abandoning your family,” she said.
“It was kind of hard for me to leave. I’m the only one in my family to ever go to college, let alone go to graduate school or become a doctor. They said ‘she’s a doctor, but she doesn’t give shots,’” Dellinger said. “I never wanted a student to hear the phrase about never getting into college again.”
Dellinger became an English teacher in high school, but found that her students were not being properly prepared for college. She went to get a master’s degree in student affairs. She developed tutoring centers and programs to help her students prepare for college, similar to Student Support Services.
“We’re excited about these events and the spotlight they will shine on our students and the way they are embracing the opportunity for a college education,” Barnett said. “Many of our faculty and staff were first-generation students themselves, so Tusculum is proud to proud to help these young men and women pursue their dreams and attain a degree that will put them on the path for long-term achievement.”