tnreconnect & reconnect to workforce

Adult Success Stories

Daniel Alvarez - age 32 (Professional Actors Training Program)

Daniel Alvarez

Returning to school has been an exciting experience and I am glad I had the opportunity to attend Chattanooga State. After working as a mechanic for 10 years, I decided to go back to school but a year into my engineering degree; I did a major change to Theater Arts and joined the Professional Actors Training Program (PATP). I have enjoyed every bit of it, from the instructors to my classmates, to all the productions we have put together in the last two years. The mixture of classes in the program helps dive deep into what it takes to become a working actor, plus it has helped liven my DJ performances.

Thanks to the Tennessee Reconnect grant I have been able to attend classes at no cost and will continue classes after earning my PATP to pursue my AFA in Theater Arts. I plan to transfer for my BFA after that or move to a bigger city and act. I am still undecided about where I will go but am excited about the journey. I want to thank everyone at ChattState that helped get me there, especially the financial aid office and my instructors! If you are considering going back to school, do not hesitate, there are always a million reasons not to do something, so go for it.

Antwon Baldwin - age 43 (Mass Communication Program)

Antwon Baldwin2020 Graduate with Associate of Science degree in Mass Communication

After earning my Associate Degree in Communications at Chattanooga State, a new world of opportunity has opened itself to me.  I am now equipped with transferrable skills that will propel my path forward.  My degree immediately qualifies me for a broader range of skilled positions and simultaneously increases my chances for success.  I am now able to submit my resume’ to more companies and apply for higher paying positions.  Earning an associate degree also provides a new sense of freedom.  This freedom allows a graduate to choose a career path instead of accepting the only path available.  Taking advantage of the TN Reconnect Program was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.  Chattanooga State has provided me with a lifelong networking family while also re-igniting my thirst for education.

Words cannot express the value of Chattanooga State’s networking opportunities.  The faculty, staff, and classmates provide a family atmosphere that continues to grow throughout your time at Chattanooga State.  This network stays connected even after graduation.  The faculty is always available to offer advice and they periodically call or email just to stay connected.  Classmates were surprisingly happy to help older students like myself learn technology and figure out basic computer skills.  I have also learned of new career opportunities in my field from other classmates.  I currently have a few job opportunities on the table solely because of my classmates.  They also alert me when other jobs become available.  The faculty and staff work tirelessly to make sure adult students get the most out of their experience at Chattanooga State.  Marsha Barker and Sheila Gholston are two names that every Tennessee Reconnect student will soon learn and hold near to their heart.  These two ladies go above and beyond the scope of their job descriptions to help adult students achieve their goals. 

I am currently enrolled at UTC working towards earning my bachelor’s degree.  Chattanooga State has more than adequately prepared me for the academic responsibilities at UTC.  I have often heard rumors that university academic material was a lot more difficult than the assignments at community colleges.  This is simply not true.  Chattanooga State’s curriculum transitions smoothly to UTC’s.  I graduated Chattanooga State with a 4.0 GPA, and I am currently maintaining a 4.0 at UTC.  Any adult student wishing to make the transition to a four-year university will continue seamlessly.  I cannot reiterate enough the value of the TN Reconnect Program.  It unlocks doors that you were born to walk through!

Megan Barrott - age 30 (Exercise Science)

Megan BarrottEarning a college degree was something I always dreamed about and planned on, however it has come in a different order than I originally anticipated. I was married to my best friend shortly after my 19th birthday (we will be celebrating our 11th anniversary this December!) and soon after, we were pregnant with our first child. After a traumatic and life-threatening birth for the baby, we learned she had a very rare, genetic skin condition, which would affect her for the rest of her life. I quickly realized I needed to postpone finishing school for a time, and focus on being a stay at home mom. Just shy of age 25, two little boys joined our family and we were a family of five.

As those early years passed and our family grew, I began to wonder if I would be able to return to school due to the financial burden it would impose on our family. During this time I also began an ongoing battle with depression and anxiety, which only furthered my desire to become more educated on how to help myself and others who struggle in similar ways. Years later when I learned about the TN Reconnect program, that I could return to school tuition free and part-time, I felt relief from the fear of a financial burden and excitement again about returning to school one day. I could even return at a pace I could manage, while keeping my priorities where I wanted them - with my family. While I’ve had to make some temporary sacrifices and I’m still learning how to balance all the things, I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to finish my education, thanks to the TN Reconnect Program. None of this would be possible without the support of my family or those at the school.

Don’t ever doubt yourself or feel like it’s too late to go back to school. It is never too late to gain an education. “Education is the difference between wishing you could help other people and being able to help them.” - Russell M. Nelson

Adrianne Blackwell - age 33 (Nursing RN Program)

adrianne blackwellI am the mother of two boys. In 2014, I decided to earn my GED and go to college. When I made that decision, I thought I would already have a degree and joined the workforce by now, but with the burden of paying for classes that did not happen. After I applied for financial aid, I learned that I only qualified for a loan, no assistance other than that.

I have had so many people tell me that they are still paying back student loans. With my oldest son graduating high school in a few years and starting college himself, taking out a student loan for myself was not a good idea. With the TN Reconnect program I can finally attend college at a pace that is going to help me reach my lifelong goals sooner than I anticipated. This program is perfect for adults like myself who do not qualify for financial aid, yet do need assistance paying for college. I am so excited to start this fall at Chattanooga State!

Princess Burney - age 39 (Pharmacy Technician Program)

Princess Burney

I first began my journey at Chattanooga State in August of 2000 majoring in the pharmacy technician program. In May 2002, I graduated with a 3.263 GPA. Following graduation, I finished six weeks of clinicals to gain hands-on experience in pharmacy, while also working my first pharmacy job at Eckerd’s Pharmacy. Soon thereafter, I took the national PTCB board exam. In July 2002, I passed the exam and became a certified pharmacy technician.

During my 17 years as a CPht, I've worked in a compounding laboratory where I compounded specialty medications to meet patient’s needs. I'm currently employed at the Erlanger Hospital main campus pharmacy.

For several years, I've been wanting to further my education to take my career to the next level but, like most adults, the issue has been finding the right schedule and financial assistance to help pay for school. At the beginning of 2019, I came across an ad about Tennessee Reconnect. I researched all the benefits and qualifications about the program, contacted all sources, and submitted an application, which was a great success. I returned to Chattanooga State in fall 2019 to fulfill my goal in furthering my education and taking my career to the next level. I am majoring in Health Science and thereafter, expanding the level of my career to a forensic science laboratory technician.

Although things have changed during the pandemic working as a healthcare professional has been quite an adventure. Thankfully, I have been able to assist with the care of patients and meanwhile stay healthy as well. Through this journey, I have also been able to finish my degree with the support of family and friends. Special thank you to Ms. Marsha Barker the director of Tennessee Reconnect at Chattanooga State and LaKita Curtis the navigator of Tennessee Reconnect who navigates the eastern region. These two ladies have been phenomenal and have done such a great job in taking the time to answer any questions and helping me overall with the process of furthering my education and leveling up my career.

I am proud to say thanks to Tennessee Reconnect. I encourage anyone to never give up on your dreams and goals – just continue to walk by faith; there's always time for growth.

Anthony Carter - age 46 (Engineering Systems Technology - Mechatronics Systems Program)

Anthony CarterAssociate of Applied Science Mechatronics Major

I moved to Tennessee fifteen years ago with my two young children and my wife who worked full time. Moving away from family was hard, and raising two kids without family support was even harder. I tried to go back to school while the kids were young, but felt I couldn't focus on all three. Working a full time job while trying to help my kids do homework and my homework was more difficult than I had anticipated. So I decided to postpone school until an opportune time would arise.

Now that our kids are grown and on their own, I can focus on my education again. I was discussing school with a co-worker and the Reconnect program was brought up, therefore I looked into it. I am now going into my second year using this program. The hours for classes and the classes themselves have been great. I have been blessed to have some amazing professors that are patient and take their time to explain things thoroughly.

Getting my degree and using the knowledge I will have gained will help me advance in my job, where I have worked full time for 15 years. Using the Reconnect program will help me to not be financially burdened with paying off a school debt. It will also give me the ability to focus on my career right after getting my degree. I would encourage any adult looking to go back to school to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity we have. It is never too late to pursue a college degree or a lifelong dream.

Justin Ciero - age 37 (Engineering Systems Technology - Mechatronics Systems Program)

Justin Ciero

My college journey has been a little unconventional because a college degree was never something that was on my radar. I could never settle on a career path so I always struggled with the idea of going to college and having no clear path forward because of my inability to decide what I wanted to do.

I joined the workforce immediately following high school, and married at the age of 21. A couple years after that I started a career in the Laborers Union working mainly in nuclear power. After more than twelve years in nuclear I started to realize that in order to further my career the way I wanted to, I was going to need a college degree, but that seemed like an impossible task at this point in my life. Not only the financial aspect of it, but also the time I would have to invest seemed unrealistic. By that time my wife and I had four amazing children. My oldest son has a rare genetic disorder (Dup15q Syndrome) and autism. Needless to say, being a husband, father of four, including a child with complex medical needs, and working full-time gave me all the excuses I needed not to go to college and settle with where I was in my career.

When I found out about TN Reconnect, I realized I could go to school part-time. This seemed manageable even considering how busy my life was, and I could do it at almost no cost to me. Suddenly, going to college seemed like more of a reality than it had in the past. I talked to my wife about it and she whole heartedly encouraged me to go for it. She has been my biggest supporter as I’ve been going to Chattanooga State and I never could have done it without her help and without the Reconnect program.

I would encourage anyone who is in a similar position to take advantage of the Reconnect program. It’s not easy juggling all of life’s responsibilities and going to college as an adult, but most things that are worthwhile aren’t easy. I’m grateful that TN Reconnect has given me the opportunity to pursue a college degree and further my career. I know that I am giving my family a better future because of TN Reconnect.

Shandelle Clifton - age 27 (Hydrology Program)

Shandelle CliftonUniversity Parallel Program

“Knowledge is power.”  My parents instilled this concept in me when I was very young.  I always knew I wanted to be a college graduate; no one in my family had been at the time and my mother and father both dropped out of school before finishing high school. After getting her GED, my mother tried for years in college, but was unable to support our family by herself and achieve her goals in education.

For safety reasons, my mother and I were forced to leave our home state during my first semester in college. I had to take incompletes for all of the classes that I worked so hard for in just a few weeks before my first semester ended. Because of this, I knew I would have to come up with money to afford out-of-state tuition in order to continue my education. When you are forced to leave everything behind and start fresh, it is very difficult to do. I had two thoughts then, this was the end of my college journey and my life is going to turn into my mother’s; always trying to get ahead. 

After a period of settling in involving becoming a river guide, making life-long best friends, and marrying one of them, my husband, (boyfriend at the time) encouraged me to go back to school. I didn’t think it was possible since we both worked full-time jobs and had part-time summer jobs even though I really did have a desire to go back. Like my mother, he admitted that he regretted not being able to finish his education and knew that I would as well if I didn’t, so I drove to Chattanooga State to gather information. The staff was very helpful and introduced me to the TN Reconnect program. I feel very fortunate having moved to a state that offers this program and I feel that it should be available to anyone in all states that wish to further their education as it has been very helpful to me in my pursuit.

I am scheduled to graduate from Chattanooga State in the spring of 2022 bringing me closer to my goal of obtaining a bachelor’s in hydrology.  If it weren’t for this program, I would not have been able to consider that an option. In my case, life threw me into a hydraulic and TN Reconnect and Chattanooga State were there to throw me a paddle, I just had to ride the wave and pry my way out of it. With a little initiative and planning, I believe anyone that has the drive to continue their education would and should take advantage of these benefits. I hope this is inspiring, work hard and good luck!

Andy Condrey - age 53 (Nursing RN Program)

Andy Condrey2021 Graduate with Associate of Applied Science degree in Nursing

I was terribly ill-equipped to succeed in college after first graduating high school. I did intend to one day obtain a degree but felt that I lacked the discipline fresh out of school and needed some time to mature before making such a commitment. I wanted some “me time,” time to find out who I was and what I really wanted, so, I joined the Marine Corps. Yeah, good call, right?

They say life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. Before I had a chance to go back to school as I originally planned, I was married and the father of three kids. After serving my time “maturing” in the Marines, I began working as a firefighter and became certified as a paramedic. I loved the job and wanted to do more in the medical field, but I had a family to support. I simply could not afford to go to school, it was a matter of both time and money.  Thirty years goes by faster than you think.

Fast forward: The kids have grown and gone away to college, the military, and started their own families. I’m working as a flight paramedic with Erlanger’s Life Force Air Medical Services and work with some of the most confident, capable, and brightest nurses in the nation, many of them graduates of Chattanooga State’s nursing program.  I consider myself fortunate to work alongside them and have long wanted to go back to school and get my nursing degree, but the money for tuition, right? Wrong.

My wife told me about the Tennessee Reconnect Program. She is a college graduate herself and a tremendous advocate for continuing education, and she guided me to the application. I was elated to see that I qualified and eager to begin attending classes! If only I could manage to complete the coursework, my nursing degree was within arm’s reach! 

I can’t say enough good things about all of Chattanooga State’s faculty and staff who’ve helped me along the way. Going back to school is challenging, but in a positive way! If I can do it, you can too!

Marcus Cosey - age 40 (Construction Engineering)

marcus coseyMy story starts from the beginning when as a kid being told that I would never amount to anything. Hearing those words, hurt so bad and I had to learn to build confidence from being told that I could not do certain things. I began to read The Bible as a kid and loved reading Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” So, from high school until this present day I learn to say, “I can” instead of “I cannot.” I can is where I draw my strength from when no one believed me, God told me I could do it. After graduating from high school, I went to Chattanooga State to pursue a career in welding from the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2000. The summer of 2000 I decided welding was not the career I wanted to continue to pursue. The remainder of that year I worked different temporary jobs. One day while out and about, I ran into an old high school classmate who informed me that the Chattanooga Choo Choo was hiring. I applied and was hired in 2001 in the landscaping department. I worked there for eleven years. While working at the Choo Choo, my manager would always say to me that I needed to go to school. Being young, she saw the potential in me of being more than a landscaper. Plus, she knew my career growth was extremely limited. She told me; you cannot work at the Choo Choo all your life. So, I decided to go to Chattanooga State for a second time in 2004 to 2005 completing the landscaping certificate program. It was good that I finished school, but I was still searching for what I really wanted in life. Years later after three different jobs, my “I can” attitude was setting in. My current job at the Chattanooga Gas Company has more opportunities for development and career growth. So, I began to discuss with my wife that I was going back to school to get a degree. I would always share with others if you believe it you can achieve it. Now I am taking the advice that I had given to people over the years and using it for myself. The Lord has blessed me over the years to be a blessing to others. By encouraging them to pursue their goals and to never give up. I finally know that I want to work in Construction Engineering. My God has built me for this journey of completing my degree all the while working full time to support my family. It is never okay to tell a child they will never amount to anything. I took that negative energy and flipped it to positive energy. But the God I serve told me I CAN NEVER QUIT, with that my journey has come full circle. It is not how you start but how you finish and giving your all to the end.

Kiva McClendon Crutcher - age 59 (Psychology)

Kiva McClendon CrutcherAs a young child I experienced a lot of mental and physical traumas, and as a result, I began experimenting with drugs at the age of twelve. By the time I was eighteen years of age I was addicted to marijuana, smoking every day, which led me to drop out of high school my junior year because I couldn’t focus anymore. One of the rules in my home was that us kids would either go to school or get a job, so I chose work. I knew how to work because I saw my mom work her fingers to the bone to raise five kids on her own and she did it well. By the time I was in my early twenties I was experimenting with many other drugs and partying almost every night. In fact, I was completely addicted.

When my daughter was born, I had not planned to be a single mom. Instead, I had dreams of a two-parent home with a dog, a white picket fence, and a career of becoming a psychologist. I wanted to help young girls that had been abused like myself, but my addiction destroyed those dreams and many more. When I got clean, my only goal was to make sure that my daughter was safe and that she got a well-rounded education. I had given up on my dreams of becoming a psychologist. I felt as though I was too old to go to college and that my credit and my credibility with financial aid had been destroyed. When my daughter was just a young child, my addiction and my struggles as a single parent were a lot. I tried to attend college but after several failed attempts, I chose work over education.

I can remember dropping my daughter off at Alabama State University, which was one of the proudest moments of my life. With tears in my eyes as my daughter hugged me tightly and said goodbye, she whispered in my ear and said, “Mom, why don’t you go to college while I’m in college?” I laughed a little because I had not thought about college in years and I didn’t believe at this point my brain could even function in school, but over the several years I thought a lot about it. Because of my recovery old dreams were reawakening, and new possibilities arose. My dreams of becoming a psychologist were coming back to life and the encouragement that I was receiving from family and friends in recovery prompted me to start researching options.

When I found about Tennessee Reconnect, I didn’t really believe that I would be accepted but I applied anyway and what a life changer this has been for me. I have been clean for 15 years. I was able to attend Chattanooga State at my own pace and many of my fears of inadequacy are gone. I graduated with my associate degree in fall of 2021. I am working toward getting my LADACS with plans of continuing for my bachelor’s degree in psychology. Thank you, Marsha Barker, for all of your encouragement and Tennessee Reconnect for making my dreams possible.

Breana Drymon - age 23 (Administrative Professional Technology Program

Breana DrymonDid you know that 55% of students struggle to pay for college? And of that, 51% go on to eventually drop out, 30% percent of those being first-time freshmen. It’s crazy to think of all the hard work and potential up to that point, being wasted due to people not being able to afford school, but if you’re like me, dropping out was never a solution.

I’m 23-years-old and work full-time between my serving job and babysitting. I live with two other girls and have been on my own with no outside help from my family or anyone since I was 18 years old. Yes, it’s been very hard, between finding the time and money for college, but giving up was never an option for me. As August approached, I was informed that I wouldn’t be receiving financial aid to attend classes this semester. I knew I was already struggling to pay bills and that there was absolutely no way I could make ends meet and have the money saved up to pay for classes when they began. I felt like a complete failure and started freaking out at the thought of having to sit out a semester and get behind in order to save up the money I needed.

I decided to reach out to my advisor who told me about TN Reconnect. If it wasn’t for TN Reconnect, I wouldn’t be attending classes this semester. The TN Reconnect is a grant for adults to earn an associate degree or technical certificate, tuition-free.

Through my advisor, I was able to contact Marsha Barker, who has helped me tremendously. I was briefly asked a few questions, and then told I qualified for TN Reconnect. A huge weight of stress was lifted off my shoulders. What made it even better is how simple it was to know if I qualified, and how fast the whole process went after being submitted.

One week later, I was in and registering for my classes. The good thing about TN Reconnect is that it does not only pay for your tuition for up to five years, allowing you to earn your degree, but you have such a supportive group of other students right by your side who are going through the exact same thing. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone.

With TN Reconnect, not only am I given the funds to achieve my degree, but I have someone there to answer all of my questions and be with me every step of the way to keep me on track. Three months ago, I had never even heard of the TN Reconnect and had no idea of what was in store for me by choosing to talk to someone and learn more about it.

So, if you’re struggling like I was, dropping out is not the answer. There’s so much more in store for you if you just explore your options. Do not give up. I encourage you to keep going, step out of your comfort zone and ask questions, because if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to attend college this semester, and I would have been another step back from achieving my degree.

Garrett Espy - age 27 (Criminal Justice Program)

Garett EspyI consider myself an unconventional graduate of Chattanooga State Community College. My journey through life and the pursuit of a higher education degree began when I graduated high school in 2010. I, like many people, was unsure of what I wanted to do for my future career. I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I was afraid that I would make the wrong decision and end up regretting my choice. I always believed in the saying, “chase the job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” so I decided to go into the workforce instead and save money for school until I figured it out. At the time, my family was unable to send me to college and warned about acquiring student loan debt, so I decided to save enough money for my first couple of semesters at college, which involved working a full-time job along with living in an apartment on my own. It was a challenging time in my life, but it taught me responsibility and the importance of a college education.

After three years of working, I had saved enough money and at the urging of wise friends and family, went back to school at Chattanooga State. Luckily, Chattanooga State offered a flexible schedule, so that I could still work full-time and take my classes part-time. Knowing my journey would be long and challenging, I was determined to succeed after finally discovering I wanted a career in criminal justice. Through the guidance of God, family, and friends, I came to the conclusion that I was meant to help and protect the society in which I lived and it strengthened my resolve.

Without a doubt there were difficulties along the way such as loads of homework, long hours of studying, and papers to write, but these trials taught me how to better manage my time and plan ahead, which has been a valuable resource to me to this day. The people that I surrounded myself with also made a great difference as well. My grandmother, mother, and father all gave me words of encouragement to do my very best and they supported me with what they could, such as providing my textbooks and school supplies.

As I progressed through school, I encountered another turning point in my life by marrying the love of my life. This commitment certainly added more responsibilities and pressures to the attainment of my education, but the strengths and blessings that I gained from my marriage have far outweighed them and have only added to my success. My wife and I faced financial struggles at first because we had extra bills, two car payments, her student loans, and were trying to save for a house in addition to paying for my schooling. It was challenging, but she was always there to encourage me to keep working hard and finish my education because she knew how much it meant to me and our future as a married couple. This endless support helped me the most because I wanted to provide the best for my wife and future family. My wife’s patience, understanding, and education assisted me greatly in completing all of my assignments, homework, and even classes. She has truly been a blessing in my life and a large part of my success as a graduate of Chattanooga State.

Towards the end of my journey as a student, the TN Reconnect grant became available for adults age 24 and older. TN Reconnect gave me the opportunity to gain free tuition for the rest of my time in college and allowed me to graduate earlier than I had expected. I couldn’t be more thankful or blessed for this opportunity and I would encourage all students to apply for this program. To all the unconventional students that might be considering going back to college, I would encourage you to not let the opportunity pass you by. It’s never too late to follow your dreams and you’ll never regret it. My last words of wisdom are from Roy T. Bennett who says, “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.” Good luck!

Keely Farris - age 47 (Biology Program)

keely farrisMy children know that it is never too late to make their dreams to come true. That is what TN Reconnect has done for my family and me. It has made a dream come true. My experiences at Chattanooga State have been life-changing. Having entered the workforce before high school graduation, I knew that was the route I would be taking because of necessity. Having insurance and paying bills was my priority after graduation. I attempted a degree several times but the course loads that I chose were too ambitious while working full-time, and when family obligations and illnesses would get in the way. I pushed the idea of going back to school aside because I was doing well in my career, but the desire to obtain a college degree was always there, nagging at me.

One day, after hearing about the TN Reconnect grant on the radio and then reading about it in the paper, I went for it. Thanks to Governor Haslam’s “Drive to 55,” my dreams might just come true. The next day I drove straight to the Chattanooga State campus to figure out how to apply. The first person that I met directed me to the Student Support Center and told me to speak with the Adult Services department. They were helpful and wanted me to succeed as much as I did. I walked out there, knowing I had people already rooting for my success. The staff in the Adult Services and Student Support Center have helped me, and they continue to walk alongside me every step of the way. This time I know that I am going to achieve my goal. I am taking part-time classes, working two part-time jobs, and have started my own business during this journey. I’m a wife, mother, daughter, and luckily enough - a college student too. Life is busy, but with eLearn and the faculty at Chattanooga State, you are set up for success. The tutoring centers have great hours, and they will help you reach your goals in the classroom. If I could give future or current students one word of advice, it would be to make use of the tutors. If you put in the work, the faculty and staff at Chattanooga State are here to help you succeed every step of the way.

Adult students are often referred to as non-traditional students. That label is one I will wear with pride. It fits perfectly. My path to obtaining a degree has not been a straight path but a winding road. I have picked-up wisdom at every one of the stops along the way, but I’m back on that road now, knowing full well what the destination will be because of TN Reconnect. Onward and upward, thanks to TN Reconnect, Chattanooga State, and, most importantly, my family. This time I am making straight A’s in my classes and cannot wait for what the future holds once I graduate.

James Fry - age 55 (History Program)

James Fry2019 Graduate of ChattState with an Associate of Arts degree in History and 2020 Graduate of Tennessee Tech University with a Bachelor of Science degree

As an older adult returning to school many years after a failed attempt at postsecondary education, I can honestly say that attending Chattanooga State Community College was one of the most exhilarating and transformative experiences in my adult life. The Tennessee Reconnect program helped provide for a new direction in my professional career goals, and the staff, faculty, and administration at Chattanooga State helped provide the pathway for a new journey of learning, academic goals, and achievement. As the dedicated professors were my champions, I am thrilled to champion the cause of adults returning to school and lead the Chattanooga State Alumni Association in honoring the successes that have occurred here through our fifty-plus year history of making a difference in the region.

When I arrived at the school, I had a vision in mind, pursuing an associate degree in History, just to prove to myself that I could succeed in accomplishing an educational goal. With a record of academic success and the guidance of advisors, I decided to keep going forward toward a bachelor’s degree, having the confidence and academic discipline I learned at Chattanooga State. In May of this year (2021), I earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Tennessee Tech University, something I would never have imagined just a few short years ago. As my passion for learning has only grown in these past four years, I am now nearing the completion of a master’s degree at Tennessee Tech in May of next year, and this thought exceeds my wildest dreams. I would never have pictured this, even since I was young. Yes, it is hard work, I have to admit, but I have been encouraged by so many people who have set amazing examples, especially among the adult students at Chattanooga State.

During my time here, I was honored in a variety of ways, achieving success, receiving awards, and asked to share my story often, however, I think I had an easier path than most others. I have said it in the past, and I’ll always say this going forward; adult students who are going to school, while working, raising a family, and taking care of others, all in order to achieve their dreams and earn better opportunities, are my heroes. And there are many heroes at Chattanooga State! I cannot express enough how much I admire the courage and dedication it takes for adult students to step out in faith and give higher education a try. I think about the amazing students who are making a difference as they work toward their goals and set examples for all of us and those they love. I wish all the best to the faculty, staff, and leaders at this amazing institution, and most of all- best wishes to the students who make up this campus community and have found learning to be a life-long experience.

Deborah Hale - age 53 (Early Childhood Education Program)

Deborah Hale

For over 20 years, I had the privilege of fulfilling my life-long dream of being a wife and stay-at-home mother to four wonderful children that includes a son and three daughters. I was so grateful that God had blessed us with the necessary resources that enabled me to spend my days volunteering at our children’s school, and striving to meet the needs of our very busy family. I was especially grateful for the three years I was able to homeschool my daughters, and will forever treasure the time we spent together. God used that experience with my girls to show me that teaching is what He gifted me to do, but I had no idea at the time it’s what I would end up doing with the rest of my life.

A little over six years ago, following an unexpected divorce, I attempted to re-enter the workforce but quickly realized that I lacked the skills necessary to acquire a position that would not only provide adequate income to support myself and the daughters who were still living with me, but also allow me to save towards the purchase of a new home, and gain greater financial security. I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish it, but I knew in my heart that I needed to overcome my fears, and feelings of inadequacy so that I could pursue my other dream of going to becoming a teacher. I’ve spent many years teaching preschoolers and elementary children in different capacities. I’ve worked in Mother’s Day Out programs, filled in as a substitute teacher at my children’s school, and currently teach a classroom full of 4- and 5-year-olds at my church. I often refer to my Sunday School classroom as my happy place and I want to experience that same feeling every day, surrounded by children who are full of life and curiosity, and I want to instill in them a love of learning that will help to build a solid foundation on which to build their lives.

My friends and family began to pray that God would give me wisdom to know what steps to take next, as well as the courage to take them. We also prayed that He would provide the financial resources I would need to attend college because I simply didn’t have the money. It wasn’t too long after we began to pray, that a friend contacted me with the exciting news that our governor had just signed a bill that would allow me to attend college at Chattanooga State, tuition-free through a program called TN Reconnect. I was thrilled! I knew this was the answer to our prayers. I immediately called my friend Marsha Barker who was, and still is, the acting Director of Adult Student Services, to inquire about this scholarship. That phone call was one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life because I knew in that moment that I was about to embark on a journey that would change the trajectory of my life…and I was terrified!

Although I was grateful for the opportunity to attend college, I was also overwhelmed because I hadn’t been in a classroom for more than 30 years. I had no idea what to expect, and truthfully, I was afraid of failing. But by God’s grace, and with the encouragement of my family and friends, I conquered my fears and insecurities and entered Chattanooga State in the Fall of 2017, as a part-time student, pursuing a degree in Early Childhood Education. However, after spending time observing in a local private school designed for children with learning differences, I decided to obtain licensure in Special Education. There was something about those children, and the teachers who poured their lives into helping them reach every milestone that stirred in me a desire to be part of their world…hopefully someday I will be!

After graduating from Chattanooga State in the Spring of 2021, I hope to transfer to Lee University and earn a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education with a focus on Special Education. I also plan to minor in Bible so that I can be better prepared to not only teach here in the states, but also minister to children overseas. I’m willing to teach wherever God might send me, but would love to spend time during the summer months working with friends in the AMG childcare centers in Peru. It’s a place where education is a privilege extended only to those who can afford to pay, not a right that can be taken for granted. They have a longing to learn and I have a passion to teach.

As I sit here and reflect over my last three years at Chattanooga State to consider what it is about our school that has set it apart from a four-year university and what it has provided me with that a university couldn’t, I would say it’s that sense of belonging and knowing that although there have been challenges along the way, I haven’t have to face them alone. I’ve been surrounded by faculty and staff members like Marsha who truly care about me and want to see me succeed. They haven’t merely guided me, they’ve walked beside me every step of this journey, cheering me on, encouraging me when they sensed I was struggling or getting discouraged, and celebrating with me as I aced a STATS test, or made it through a difficult presentation. I’ve even had a professor host a few late-night ZOOM tutoring sessions with me after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Chattanooga State to close our campus in the middle of the semester. I don’t think I would have experienced this level of interest and care from a university. I’m not even sure I would have experienced it at another community college. I just think our school is something special, and I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of a community that wants to make a difference in the lives of others, regardless of the personal sacrifice of their time, energy, and resources. It’s what convinced my daughter to choose Chattanooga State instead of a university. She saw how much my teachers cared about me and knew she wouldn’t find it at a university. As her journey is beginning at Chattanooga State, mine is coming to an end, and I will miss it very much!

I began this journey four years ago just before my 50th birthday, and although sometimes it has seemed overwhelming and I thought I could never do it, the end is in sight…and I want to finish strong. I’ve worked very hard to earn and maintain a 4.0 GPA, and have received recognition of that hard work through Phi Theta Kappa and Spire. I have also received an award for the community service work I coordinated and participated in through our C.Ad.R.E. Club. I feel truly honored to have received the recognition, but there’s something I value more than these accolades. You see, God has blessed me with the opportunity to meet some very special people in my classes and I’ve develop close relationships with a couple of them. One has faced a terrible tragedy, while another has experienced great personal triumph. Being allowed to share in those moments with them has been my “greatest achievement”. To be entrusted to share in Shelly’s grief and walk through such a difficult season in her life, or to be invited to participate in Jennifer’s celebration and be used of God to help her achieve her own success…I count them both a great privilege. These friendships are gifts I will treasure far more than any award or degree I could ever receive.

In closing, I want to share a quote from Mark Edmundson that has had a major impact on my career choice. He said, “education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play – work you do so easily that it restores you as you go.” Thanks to the dedicated faculty and staff at Chattanooga State, I will have an opportunity to do what I know God has gifted me to do, and it’s something that not only brings me great joy each and every day, but gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. I’m so excited to see where my education will take me and how God will use me along the way.

Latonya Henderson - age 42 (Hospitality & Tourism Management Program)

Latonya Henderson2020 Graduate with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management

Hello, my name is Latonya Henderson. I graduated high school in 1997 and decided to attend Chattanooga State to further my education to prepare for the future. I enrolled in the fall semester, but to my demise, I became a college drop out. I was no longer confident of my success as a college student. 

Thereafter I began working for a manufacturing facility where I was employed for 20 years. In 2009, I returned to college to pursue a degree in Business Management. The journey was pursued with great effort. Essentially, I restarted with developmental courses and then moved onto college courses for as long as I could while maintaining a full-time job. As time progressed, my classes grew more intense. I chose to abandon my course of study and concluded that college was not ideal. 

In 2017, my sister-in-law (Tassany Henderson) and I had a conversation regarding college. She asked me if I would be interested in going back to school. My response immediately was no! Her eagerness to convince me led to sharing information regarding the Tennessee Reconnect program. In 2018, I was fully committed to grow and utilize my gifts. In the fall semester, I enrolled in the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program. I carefully selected this major and determined that it would suit me because of my passion to help people. The road was not easy but well worth it.

I graduated fall 2020 with an AAS in Hospitality and Tourism Management. I did not know what to expect due to the impact of the pandemic. In 2021, I was blessed with the opportunity to begin a career in the Hotel Industry in Nashville, TN. I foresee this as an opportunity to grow, gain more knowledge within the Hotel and learn all I can. Again, I cannot express how thankful I am for the opportunity to return to college through the Tennessee Reconnect Program. One piece of advice that I would share with an adult returning to college would be to cherish your vision, realize that it is never too late to pursue your passion and know that the staff at Chattanooga State is there to support your journey.

Cristina Heredia - (Accounting Program)

Cristina HerediaI moved to the United States 19 years ago. After graduating from high school, I did not have the opportunity to go to college. Missing my college experience is something that has always bothered me; I was a good student who enjoyed school and for different reasons I could not pursue a college degree. Once I was able to attend, I hesitated for years to go to college; it seemed like a mountain I would not be able to climb. English is not my first language, so I was afraid that I would fail. Thankfully, I learned about TN Reconnect, and that was the push that I needed to get my academic career going.

I made a commitment to dedicate my time and efforts to pass every class with the highest score I could get. Working full-time and running a house definitely added to the challenge, but my support system has always been there. I recently became a mother, and my husband and baby motivate me to achieve my end goal, which is a bachelor’s degree. I know that by all my sacrifices now, I can offer my daughter a brighter future. My only regret is not starting sooner, but I also think every day that I am one day closer to my dream. 

TN Reconnect has given me the opportunity to achieve my goals and become the professional that I know I can be. If you are hesitant about going back or starting college, give yourself the opportunity to make your dreams possible. We are much more capable than we can imagine; we just have to work hard and believe that all the sacrifices will be worth it in the end.

Nick Jung - age 35 (Cyber Security Program)

Nick JungDeciding to go back to school in my thirties was a big decision. After rekindling my love of technology I began looking for programs that would prepare me for a job in IT in which I found Cyber Security to be a fascinating field. I began researching it and looking into the job market growth which seemed to be quite substantial over the next decade. Chattanooga State offered 3 focuses within the Information Systems concentration Programming, Networking, and Cyber Security. The mixture of networking and programming involved in the Cyber Security concentration garnered my attention from the beginning. Now 2 years later I am finishing my program with an A.A.S in Cyber Security with intention to transfer my degree to W.G.U and finish my Bachelors. I have achieved certifications in Network+ and Security+ with an upcoming certification exam for CySA+ in January. I have managed a 4.0 since returning as an adult student and gained membership in both the Spire National Honor Society and Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society.

Student life at Chattanooga State has been a wonderful experience. With a multitude of programs aimed at student learning and integration it has not been hard to find it as a new home away from home. The staff in my field of study has been wonderful and always provided a platform in which I could excel and have the access I needed to learn in a friendly environment.

Tennessee Reconnect helped play a large role in my returning to Chattanooga State as an adult learner. With the stresses and responsibilities of everyday life many adults find it hard to contemplate the financial stress of student loan debt nor do they want to take on such a burden. Tennessee Reconnect provided an opportunity for me to return to school without having to worry about anything other than paying for my own books, although there is an opportunity to receive a scholarship for your books as well! The process is very streamlined and easy to navigate with someone willing to help every step of the way. Never once did I have any issues in my process to sign up or obtain TN Reconnect and if I had any questions along the way I always had someone there to provide an answer. My experience at Chattanooga State has been nothing short of exceptional and I hope that many others will choose to take advantage of the wonderful atmosphere, environment, and programs that they offer.

Katrina Griffin - age 36 (University Parallel Program)

Katrina Griffin2019 Graduate with Associate of Science degree – University Parallel

2020 Graduate of Middle Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Science degree

2022 Graduate of UT Martin with a Masters of Education in Science

Chattanooga State’s motto, “Start Here, Go Anywhere!” couldn’t be more accurate. My college career started at Chattanooga State in 2017; I was 32 years old with a husband, two children who play multiple sports, and a full-time job. I always wanted a college degree, but all I could see were obstacles.


I found the courage to enroll in ChattState after hearing an ad on the radio about “Drive to 55,” an initiative started by Tennessee’s former Governor, encouraging adult students to get their college degree or certificate by 2025. Realizing there were many adults in Tennessee lacking higher education made me feel less alone in the process. What kept me going at ChattState was the friends I made on campus – young and “old,” the instructors, and finding CADRE, a club on campus for adult students. What propelled me to graduate ChattState and continue my education was the skills, confidence, courage, and the ability to apply to any college because of my degree at ChattState. Today, I hold a bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University. I am a graduate student at the University of Tennessee at Martin, pursuing a Master of Education in Science. I am on track to graduate in May 2022, and then I will begin a career that I want to be in – not one chosen for me due to my lack of education.

If you are considering going back to college, but, like me, you only see the obstacles, I encourage you to take the step anyway. You will earn much more than a degree or a certificate. The empowerment realized through choosing your future will be worth all the hard work and sacrifice required.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose!” - Dr. Suess

Misty May - age 38 (Business Administration Transfer/Accounting Emphasis Program)

Misty MayMy story begins more than 20 years ago. After graduating from High-School in 1998, I enrolled in college to pursue a degree in accounting. I married shortly thereafter, and after obtaining a job related to the field I was majoring in, I decided to quit college. I focused on my family and worked full-time. A few years later, I was blessed with a son, then a daughter. I had the opportunity to stay home with each child until they started school. When my youngest child went to school, I began to rethink my decision to quit college many years earlier. I went to work part-time to fill my days with a local Head Start Agency. Head Start is a big supporter of education and improving your life, along with the life of your family. I noticed that many of the people I worked with had obtained their degrees later in life, and they were great at what they did!

I started to think about returning to college, but there were factors that had prohibited me from returning in the past. The first was a matter of convenience. Getting to campus would be tough. Then Chattanooga State expanded their Kimball Site. It was close to where I live and work. The number of classes available online had also increased over the years. My other issue was the tuition. I did not want to rack up student debt to go back to college. Then I heard about Tennessee Reconnect being revised and learned that I might qualify for tuition costs to be paid. I checked into it, and I did qualify. Now all the reasons that once kept me from returning to classes were gone. The only thing standing in my way was myself. I decided to get past my fear of failure and go for it. I was out of excuses.

I enrolled in Chattanooga State during the Fall 2017 semester to complete a degree I started more than 19 years earlier. I am projected to finish my transfer degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Accounting at the end of the Summer 2019 semester.

 I have been fortunate to have the support of my husband, family and my coworkers while working to obtain my degree. There also have been numerous people at Chattanooga State that have helped me stay on track and offer advice. One professor in particular was always willing to help me when I had questions relating to her subject area. As long as I was willing to work on my subjects and learn, I have had all of the resources that I need available to me.

 Not only will I soon have the satisfaction of fulfilling a dream that I started many years ago, I have the opportunity to show others, especially my children, that a person can achieve success if they work hard and have the right support system. I had to get past a fear of failing. I have found out that I am a better student than I was twenty years ago.  I have maturity and life experiences on my side this time. I have been, and am going to be successful, and I have figured out that I have the ability to lead and encourage others to tackle things that they have put off in life because of excuses or fear of failing. I am living my life in a way that shows my children and those around me that with hard work and determination you can accomplish great things!

Ashley Mello - age 34 (Exercise Science Program)

Ashley MellowI’ve always had the personal drive to coach people in health and fitness. I’ve competed in triathlons, fitness events, and I am a NASM certified trainer. I’ve used that experience to train others for a few years but wanted the educational background to complement that experience.  This is one of the reasons why I decided to go back to school using the Tennessee Reconnect program at Chattanooga State.

I had been homeschooled my whole life and although I consider myself educated to some degree, I always wanted to do something more. I entered the workforce and became mired in the life that, although fulfilling, was still lacking in the potential that I saw in myself.  I considered going back to school, but the cost was prohibitive, and I thought it was beyond what I was capable of academically. At the same time, the longer I waited to get back into the classroom, the less confident I became that I would be able to learn at the level that I had been during my younger years. The idea of going to college was completely off my radar until the Tennessee Reconnect program was approved in 2018. 

I thought it would be difficult to be accepted to the program, but it wasn’t. I thought I would feel like an outcast in a school full of students right out of high school, but I didn’t. I thought it would be impossible to juggle my job and my family, along with school and homework, but the support system that is available to me both at the college and at home has made it possible. I plan on graduating in December of 2020 with a degree in exercise science.

With the knowledge I have gained at this campus, tempered with the experience I have had, I will be able to serve in a much higher capacity than before. I believe my life’s purpose is to acquire as many skills as possible in the field of fitness and use those skills to serve others. Tennessee Reconnect and Chattanooga State helped enhance those abilities. If you’re wondering if you should go back to school, I encourage you to go for it!  It is so worth it!

Eva Milligan - age 41 (Wellness & Fitness Leadership Program)

Eva MilliganAs a wife and mother of two children, ages 9 and 14, I have been interested in fitness and weight training since I was 12-years-old when my older brother taught me how to lift. I went to work straight out of high school and worked my way up in the company by whom I was employed. After I married, I quit my job to become a stay-at-home wife and mother for the last 18 years.

Since my children were older and in school, I was ready to go back to work but had no idea where to start. My husband had been suggesting that I go back to school to get a degree, but I was always worried about the expense of college. It was at this time that I looked up Chattanooga State to see what degrees they offered and found out about TN Reconnect. I had always told my husband, if I could go to school for free, I would go back in a heartbeat. I never dreamed a program like TN Reconnect would come along. It has been a blessing.

The financial part was well taken care of, but then fear set in about the workload, studying, and being a 41-year-old woman in college. Of course, it is nothing like I had imagined it would be. The workload and studying are very time consuming, but it is not as bad as I thought it would be after being out of school for so long. Being on a college campus has not been uncomfortable at all. I’ve been mistaken for a professor a few times, but the younger students I’ve worked with have been great and treat me like any other student. The professors and staff at Chattanooga State have been amazingly patient and helpful, which has made my college experience so much better.

I had been out of school for 22 years when I decided to go back. I met with an advisor and started down the path to become a Certified Personal Trainer through Chattanooga State’s Wellness and Fitness Leadership program. I’m finally getting a degree, but the best part is I’m getting a degree in an area that I absolutely love. I am beginning my sophomore year in August and I absolutely love college. At this time, I have a 4.0 average, have been inducted into two honor societies, and plan to graduate with my associate degree in the Spring of 2019.

Going back to school has been one the best decisions of my life. I have gained so much confidence in myself. When I tell people my major, some people look at me like I’m crazy, but I believe people should follow their dreams, no matter what their age. I am, and will continue to be, living proof that age is just a number because I know I can do anything I set my mind to with hard work and determination. I still have a long way to go to become the “me” I want to be, but quitting is not an option and going back to college was the first major step in my journey. I encourage everyone I know to go back to school and get a degree. There has never been a better time or a better opportunity to go back than right now. Don’t just dream, make your dreams a reality.

Allen Nesmith - age 53 (Mechatronics Program)

Allen NesmithThe value of an education was high on my dad’s list of things he wanted for his son. I didn’t place being educated past high school as a priority for my life in my younger years. I watched three of my heroes in life work and work hard. My grandfather, who didn’t finish elementary school, worked hard every day. He was skilled in carpentry, masonry, and farming. I also had an uncle who attended college but didn’t finish who managed to find a decent job, but he often spoke of aspirations he had that included finishing his college degree. And there is my dad, who had a manager’s position in the plastic industry, and he took care of his family. My dad was never around; he always worked side jobs. As a child growing up, I always thought he was never there at my games, but when I grew up and got my own family, I saw it took those types of sacrifices and why he wanted me to pursue higher education. Fast forward to many years later, speaking with a former supervisor about going back to at the age of forty-seven, I was told about Tennessee Reconnect.


I started my journey at Chattanooga State through Tennessee Reconnect; it took me five years to obtain my degree in Electrical Engineering. Tennessee Reconnect afforded me that opportunity. As a result, I’m a transfer student now at UTC pursuing my degree in Mechatronics and have a 3.6 grade-point average. I have made the dean’s list every semester. Additionally, I am active at the university as a member of the Mechatronics Club and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). In my community, I also work with Empowered Connections, a non-profit that provides services for young adults that provides individualized training and mentoring for disabled adults as they transition out of high school. None of this would be possible without Tennessee Reconnect.

Zennia Nesmith - age 47 (Psychology Program)

Zeenia NesmithSomeone once told me that community college is a loser’s last resort. I want to destroy this perception in my community and tell others what I found to be true, abundantly true. Community college is a vital community resource. It is the oxygen for the dreams of our community. TBR’s community colleges are the solution to many of the problems plaguing our communities. I want everyone to understand the value of education. I am setting the example for others in my community to change their lives via the transformative power of Tennessee’s community colleges. 

As a child, I was fascinated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even as young as seven-years-old, his compassion for humanity inspired me. I was very interested in finding solutions to problems and helping others even as a kid. Like Dr. King, serving others has been a central force in my life. Regrettably, I did not complete my high school education. 

I eventually completed my GED and decided to come to Chattanooga State more than two decades later when I heard of a program called Tennessee Reconnect. From the first college class, I knew my purpose was to do for others what was graciously done for me. With every class, I have solidified this objective. At the age of forty-six, I can confidently say that I know why I am on this earth today. My life has trained me to get to this point and take this opportunity, and I am pursuing a degree in psychology to do exactly that.   

Becoming a psychologist is a role I have been preparing for my whole life. I initially had one goal once I became an adult: to make a livable wage. Once I was a mother, that goal changed to providing for my daughter. When she became disabled from a car accident, my goal changed to keep my head above water and not give up on my daughter. I worked a job to provide for my baby and made a decent living, but all the while, I knew I needed to go to college and get an education so I could help others heal from the trauma I lived in. 

The value of education is more important to me now than ever. It is not easy to maintain a 4.0 GPA while being active in clubs /campus activities being a wife, mother, and woman. It is a real sacrifice to do the work you have been called to do. I see in my community so many areas where psychology clinics and workshops to promote healing are needed. This motivates me to keep going and work hard to achieve my degree. 

Currently, I speak to the adult education class for HISET twice a week to tell them my story. I want them to know I sat in that seat trying to figure it out, and it is okay.  I have the opportunity to share my journey with others and to inspire them that age is just a number. My husband graduated from Chattanooga State and is now at UTC pursuing a degree in mechatronics. He has been promoted in his job twice since graduating. Because of Tennessee Reconnect it has changed my household.  

I also help others in my community through my nonprofit called Empowered Connections. My education gives me exceptional guidance. The connections I am making with my classes are helping me do the work to heal others in my community. Recently I was chosen as the Student of the Year of the southeast region for SOAR this was something that could never have happened if not for Tennessee Reconnect. I want others in my community to understand the value of education, I want others to take advantage of Tennessee Reconnect … it is a life-changing opportunity. I will graduate in the Spring of 2022 with honors. It is all because of Tennessee Reconnect. 

Demarquis Perkins - age 35 (Engineering Technology Program)

Demarquis PerkinsI am a Tennessee Reconnect recipient and it has helped change my life. My girlfriend and I moved to Tennessee about seven years ago because she received an amazing job offer (we got married when we moved here) and we did not know anyone here, or have any family in or near Tennessee. She recovers organs for transplant. Moving here, I did not know what I was going to do for work, especially without an education. I began by working at Mc Donald’s and picked up a second job to make ends meet. Working both jobs still did not come near what we needed to help raise a family. We already had a 12-year-old and were soon to have another child. Things were moving fine though; due to the fact my wife had a great job.

I received an amazing opportunity to work at a manufacturing company though a friend. He helped me get my foot in the door and I began work as a forklift driver. It was more pay than what I was making previously, but still less than what we needed; however, I was excited to help my family out more than I could before.

A few years later I was blessed with another opportunity to work in the office and create programs for CNC machines. I had a very minimal amount of experience, so it was a true blessing that my manager saw something in me and gave me a chance. Soon, my family was thrown a curve ball as life does from time to time. My wife fractured her hip, needed a total hip replacement and would be out of work indefinitely. Her job was our main source of income and we had just purchased a home, among other things. We got to a point that we thought we were going to lose our home, cars and possibly have to file for bankruptcy. I picked up a second job but that was still insufficient, as I’m sure you understand.

We went through nearly two years of great financial struggle. Through God, family, and each other we made it through that difficult time. I vowed that my lack of education would never hinder me from being able to successfully provide for my family again. To see their hurt and pain was the motivation I needed to pursue my degree in Engineering Technology.

I did some research and found Tennessee Reconnect. It seemed like it was streamlined just for me. The hardest part was taking the first step. Now, I maintain a 3.6 GPA while working full-time and taking care of my family. So, it can be done! Upon completion, I will have what I need to provide for my family so that my wife can work if she wants to, and not because there is not another way to pay our bills. Because of my education I will be able to help my oldest daughter pursue her own dreams of going to college, and will make sure she doesn’t wait as long as I did to go.

Donna Pickering - age 62 (Digital Media Design & Production / Media Technologies Program)

donna pickeringI used to think I would never have the opportunity to go back to school and earn a degree. My father passed away when I was 15 and my mother, being Japanese and reserved about her English in social circumstances, was not very involved with our education as far as consulting with teachers or other activities. My younger sisters had an easier time, but being the eldest, I always had to fight for everything. I really didn’t have any mentors to help guide me along a career path while I was growing up, and I had to learn everything the hard way.

I was extremely shy back then, but I did know that after Star Wars came out, I wanted to be a special effects makeup artist, and no matter how much people thought I could never do anything like that, I was determined to prove them wrong.

I saved my money, moved to Los Angeles, worked several jobs to support myself, and had many exciting adventures. I had the opportunity to talk with Frank Westmore (who came from a family line of Hollywood’s most famous makeup artists), and he referred me to an apprenticeship program. It was a year-long waiting list, however, and since life continued to happen, I ended up on a different path and sacrificed my dream.

Now, forty-two years later, and thanks to the Reconnect Program, I’m back in school and having the time of my life learning all about television production, radio broadcasting, and more, as I’m finally working towards an A.A.S. degree in Digital Media Design and Production.

I’m not sure what kind of opportunities are out there for someone my age, but I do have a dream of getting a camper/RV and traveling around the country filming my own documentaries.

The Reconnect Program has been a great blessing and for those involved, I can’t thank you enough for giving me a purpose and goal in life once again. I no longer feel useless, trying to find something to do with myself. Every morning, I look forward to getting up and going to my classes, and unlike high school, I have a 4.0 grade point average (so far), which I hope to maintain and am just thrilled about!

Thanks again, to all those involved with the Reconnect Program, for giving me this great opportunity!

Johaina Poonawalla - age 39 (Nursing RN Program)

johaina ponnawallaTN Reconnect Graduate

Every person dreams for success and tries to achieve it in different ways. Similarly, I had a dream to become a Registered Nurse (RN) and serve humanity at large. This dream turned into reality because of Tennessee Reconnect. The scholarship received through Tennessee Reconnect ignited the hope in my heart to achieve my dreams.

Life poses many challenges. One such challenge that I encountered was the ability to pay for my tuition to further my education. As an adult, I had to juggle many responsibilities. However, I knew that I wanted to acquire the skill set and knowledge to become a registered nurse (RN), as no one would be able to take the acquired skill set and knowledge from me. The teachers in the nursing department were very helpful and guided me in my journey towards becoming a registered nurse. After acquiring the license to serve as a registered nurse, it opened many doors for me to further my education. It has given me an opportunity to carry forward the ethic of caring and sharing my knowledge to touch as many lives as possible. Learning is a lifelong process and Tennessee Reconnect provided the support I needed in this journey. 

I urge the adult population to take full advantage of Tennessee Reconnect to fulfill one’s dream. The teachers and advisors at Chattanooga State Community College are there to help you. The college gave me the sense of my community where I felt I belonged. My message is simple, “Never give up.” Where there is a will, there is a way.

Olga Powers - age 30 (Nursing RN Program)

olga powersMy name is Olga Powers. I am a 30-year-old resident of Red Bank, Tennessee. I moved here in 2011 to be closer to my family. I love playing soccer, reading and spending time with friends, my partner Paul, and our cat Zero. 

I initially went to college right out of high school in 2007 in Morristown, Tn., but I was undecided on a major at the time. Not knowing what I wanted to do career wise, I was unmotivated, and did not succeed in my courses. After three years I quit school and made plans to move to Chattanooga. Since then, I have been working different jobs, waiting tables, and other customer service jobs while I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I always knew I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on the lives of others, and finally came to the decision to go into nursing, focusing on behavioral health. I plan to earn my associate of applied science degree in Nursing at Chattanooga State, and proceed to get my BSN at UTC. 

The Tennessee Reconnect Grant has made it possible for me to return to school and advance my career. For the last year, I have been working as a patient care technician at Focus treatment centers, which is my first step in starting my career. I am very excited for the opportunity to learn and grow at Chattanooga State.

After I receive my BSN I hope to go on to get my Master’s degree to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, to help those struggling with mental health with their medication management, and overall well-being. Without Tennessee Reconnect I don't know that I would have been able to continue my education, as I'm not eligible for other federal aid. I am very thankful for this program.

Al Sands - age 46 (Accounting Program)

Al SandsAccounting Major, TN Transfer Pathway

I reenrolled in Chattanooga State Community College after dropping out some 20 years ago. It took a lot of courage for me to make that move to return, but with the support and encouragement of my family, I reenrolled in the Fall of 2015.

Initially I enrolled for one class just to get back in the groove of things, to make sure I could manage working full-time and attend college. As I increased the number of my courses, I soon found myself taking out a student loan to help cover my tuition, which I didn’t want to do, but I so wanted to graduate this time around. In the Fall of 2017 I applied for Tennessee Reconnect grant to assist with my tuition cost.

The Tennessee Reconnect grant has help me financially to continue my education without the burden of student loans. I am set to graduate in December of 2018 with my associate degree and have plans to transfer to a four-year university. Thanks Tennessee Reconnect!

Gary Satin - age 27 (Associate of Science Degree)

Gary SatinIt was not until a little after five years of being out of high school that I realized I wanted to do something more with my life. Many family dilemmas and personal problems put a pause on my education. However, once I moved to Tennessee and surrounded myself with loving people and other good influences, I knew it was time to resume my education and pursue the path that I believe God had in store for me. After hearing multiple people praise Chattanooga State Community College, I knew this would be the best place I could begin my educational journey.

With the dream of going into neurosurgery and hopefully working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one day to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s, I knew choosing the pre-med pathway would be extremely difficult. But it is that exact challenge that keeps me motivated in the first place. When I began classes, I knew I would have to sacrifice work to maintain the grades that I strive to get. Between work and school, I did not have much time for anything else, and unfortunately, I even had to sacrifice some personal relationships. Paying for the first year of college was very challenging, but I did my best to balance school, work, and relationships, even though it felt like I still was not doing enough. However, in the second year of college, I qualified for the Tennessee Reconnect Scholarship. Without having to worry about how I was going to pay for college, I was able to give my utmost focus to my studies and dedicate myself to my education so I could pursue the dream that is in my heart. I also had enough time to start rekindling the relationships that I let fell to the side.

Balancing school with personal life can be extremely stressful, but with the help of Tennessee Reconnect, I became more levelheaded, focused, and motivated. I maintained my 4.0 GPA and have had more time to apply for scholarships and schools. Recently, I was even named a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. I am truly blessed by all the help and love that I have been receiving. After realizing how hard college can be for some students, I decided to start tutoring General Chemistry I & II and Organic Chemistry I & II. Life can seem unbearable when obstacles become insurmountable, but I do not want to see fellow students fail because of the hardships that come our way. Everything that I have faced thus far in my life has made me the man that I am today. I would not be here if it were not for God, friends, family, all the staff and faculty at Chattanooga State, and fantastic opportunities such as Tennessee Reconnect. I pray that one day I can help my community just as much as it has helped me.

Justin Spencer - age 38 (Environmental Science Program)

Justin SpencerMy first attempt at college in 1999 was less than successful for a number of reasons. I wasn’t yet equipped with the mental fortitude to tackle the workload of being a full-time student while simultaneously working to support myself. During my fourth semester at MTSU, my younger sister suffered a brain aneurysm at age sixteen and passed away. It was then that I decided to return home to help support my family.

I had been working in kitchens as a part-time job during school and continued to cook after I left Murfreesboro. I loved the creative process of being a chef, as well as the fast-paced and quick-thinking aspects of restaurant work. I rose through the ranks to sous chef at a restaurant in Nashville, loving every minute of it. My friends and family noticed my passion for the culinary arts and suggested culinary school, which I quickly took to and moved to Portland, OR. Fast-forward 17 years and that career took me across the country several times and as far away as Portugal and India for work.

I moved to Chattanooga in 2016 with the hopes to eventually open a restaurant. After two years of running a small kitchen on the south side, I was let go because of creative differences with the owner. I was beyond devastated, to say the least. My entire identity had been wrapped up in being a chef for almost two decades. Luckily, my partner and some friends suggested I look into returning to school to finish my degree. Tennessee Reconnect was a new program to help adults like myself to reintegrate back into academia.

I decided to visit Chattanooga State to discuss my options with an admissions counselor and in one afternoon, everything changed for me. I enrolled at Chattanooga State to study Environmental Science and I haven’t been this happy in years. I have taken full advantage of this second chance at school, diving head-first into any and everything that ChattState has to offer. I got a job in the math department during my second semester and have rekindled my love for numbers. I have been a member of the math club, science club, social justice club, adult student club and several others, while keeping my GPA at 3.89 throughout.

Tennessee Reconnect has not only funded my classes, but also covered my expenses for books and fees for the last four semesters. The Reconnect program gave me an opportunity not only return to school to complete my degree, but an opportunity for community that I hadn’t ever considered. Chattanooga State is a diverse campus. The faculty and staff are compassionate and hard-working, and there are limitless possibilities for connection on campus. The time is now. You got this!

Kristy Strawbridge - age 35 (Social Work Program)

Kristy Strawbridge2021 Graduate with an Associate of Science degree in Social Work

Academia has never been my strongest suit growing up, to the point I had decided to drop out of high school and obtain my GED in order to “just get it over with” and complete the bare minimum to move on forward as a young adult. Looking back from 2004 (when I was supposed to graduate from high school) up until 2019, I relied upon my job experiences and opportunities that were in front of me to continue the path of finding my purpose in life. Of course, my priorities were different as well. It was for rebellious reasons or for family crisis/events and ensuring what seemed to be the right thing to do for what was going on around me. School, or furthering my education was something that was on my mind, however, in the end it was an afterthought since it wasn’t even my forte. I naively believed that education could provide more for me.

What I have realized in the last two years is that, with the additional education, not only does the opportunity provide me with renewed insight and perspectives of learning, while gaining knowledge…education most importantly to me, provides the chance to be able to do more and give more for what I finally have found passionately confident in being able to do through social work.

Chattanooga State was great way for me to be able to get back into school. After a very long absence, I was able to gain the confidence acquiring my ASW with Chattanooga State. I was accepted to Dalton State College for my Bachelor’s in Social Work, fall 2021, while continuing to be able to reside in Chattanooga. Thank you, Chattanooga State, and thank you for the encouragement with TN Reconnect for allowing a dream to begin to come true. A dream I did not know was a dream in the first place.

Rosanna Walker - age 39 (Nursing RN Program)


rosanna walkerI attended college directly after high school, but I didn’t finish my degree for a number of reasons. While working as a Certified Nursing Assistant, I decided that I wanted to become a nurse. After getting married and having two children, I went back to school and graduated as an LPN in 2011. I went on to have a third baby. I enjoyed working as an LPN, but I always felt that I could do more. I was also motivated to earn a larger salary, more respect, and greater job security as a Registered Nurse. With the help of Tennessee Reconnect, I have been able to take classes online and on campus through Chattanooga State. I have been accepted into the LPN to RN transition program, and at 39 years of age, I will graduate in May 2019 with an associate degree in nursing. 

Going back to college is a temporary sacrifice for both my family and me, but it will be worth it.  I work full-time night shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and I attend classes during the week. My husband works during the week and is studying for a degree in computer science. I order groceries online and leave piles of clean laundry around the house for my family to help put away. Our life is not perfect, but we are team. My three children see us getting up, rushing around, working hard, and reading books every day. I believe this will instill in them a strong work ethic and inspire them to pursue higher education. I sometimes imagine my children watching me walk across the stage and cheering me on as I receive my degree. This motivates me to keep trying. In just one year, my dream will become a reality.  

I encourage adults like you to look into going back to college. With the financial assistance, advising, and part-time flexibility that Tennessee Reconnect offers, now is the time to invest in your future and your family’s future.

Tim Wellington - age 42 (Nursing RN Program)

Tim Wellington2022 Graduate with Associate of Applied Science degree in Nursing

Like so many students, I tried college when I graduated high school. I thought this was the right decision because everyone else was going to college. After several attempts of not focusing on my studies, I realized college was not the right decision for me at this time. So, what caused me to continue my college career you ask? Here is how it happened.

Fast forward 10 years to being married with two kids. At the time, my wife was going to school and working to finish her degree. The kids were involved in extra curriculum activities at school and sports so now was still not the right time to go back to school. I thought about going back several times but, the only thing that was stopping me was my fear of failure, financial worries, and thinking about my age. I still remember talking with my wife about this situation and she always told me, “You never know until you try.” These words stuck with me and encourage me to go back to college. I also have a passion for helping others. At one time I was a Certified Pharmacy Technician and I really enjoyed serving the customer. I decided to pursue a career in nursing to continue this same passion for others. I remember talking with Ms. Kent, Nursing and Allied Health advisor, about my new career choice. Ms. Kent told me about TN Reconnect program which pays for students’ tuition who do not have a degree. Finally, the financial strain was off my chest and now I could just focus on my academics. This is where I put the pedal to the metal. I started by in January 2018 with all my prerequisites and applied to the Nursing Night program that started Fall of 2019.

What makes this even better is that TN Reconnect pays for programs. If you are an older adult without a degree, do not hesitate to continue your dreams. TN Reconnect has help me with my dreams and I will be eternally grateful for their assistance.

Andrew Wetzel - age 27 (University Parallel Program)

Andrew Wetzel2021 Graduate with an Associate of Science degree – University Parallel

I first started my college career like any other teenager coming out of high school. I had dreams and aspirations, but I found that I wasn’t as focused as I should have been and became distracted by other parts of college life. I ended up failing my first year and a half of college and dropped out. I went to a trade school and then went on to a specialty program sponsored by Porsche Cars North America. I am a certified Gold level Porsche mechanic. This is a prestigious title since there are less than 300 Gold level technicians in the United States.

I enjoy my job; however, through my years of working, I found that I felt like I was missing something. After some reflection I found that I wanted to return to school to become a nurse. I just enjoy helping people, and I had some medical background from high school and through family.

I was nervous about going back to school because of my previously failed attempt. I would be going back into an environment that had a large demographic of students in their late teens to early twenties and I was not sure how well I would mesh in a classroom setting. After researching and then applying, I came across Tennessee Reconnect. I was astounded that I could go back to college and get a degree without the worry of student debt.

The academic coaches, or navigators, were helpful in providing resources and they would check up on me to see how school was going. They helped me gain the confidence needed to reinforce the idea that going back to school was the right choice. I have come to find out that returning to school has been a large success for me. I found that I really knew what I wanted to study. I also found myself to be more focused and driven to do well, even while working full-time. I quickly found myself getting A’s in all of my classes and actually enjoyed being in a classroom.

The classes taught at Chattanooga State are top-notch and they are small in comparison to four-year universities. I liked this because I didn’t feel like a number that was forgotten in a large lecture hall. I was able to interact and speak to professors on a student and personal level. You can feel the passion of the instructors here and you can see that they want you to succeed. If I had some advice to give to any adult thinking about going to school, or to someone who may think it is too late, I say do it. Take the plunge and get that degree. It is never too late to learn something new or to change your career.

Latoya Williams - age 40 (Business Administration Program)

latoya williamsAs a re-enrolled graduate of Chattanooga State, I once struggled as a single parent raising three small children by myself. As a good parents wanting the best for their kids - you sacrifice, but you always keep your goals prioritized. I always said that once my children were near adulthood, I would come back for additional education. Thank goodness I have a daughter that graduated from Tyner High in 2016, a son who graduated from STEM School of Chattanooga in 2017, and my youngest child that is currently a junior at McCallie School. Currently, my oldest child and middle children attend college here at Chattanooga State, which explains that determination is  contagious--- especially when you have a single mom that encourages, participates, and understands goals and strengths.

Education is never a joke in my household based on the fact that I never actually got a high school diploma. I’ll never forget when I got my GED at Chattanooga State, an advisor asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “Catching the bus because I dont’t have the $15 to enroll.” She yelled at me to come back, gave me the enrollment fee, and said, “You will make it, and I know this!” I’m so proud that someone saw my glow for success. I graduated in 2006 from Chattanooga State with a certificate in Business Systems Technology. This is one reason why I shine brightly for education around everyone, no matter what age, race, background, etc.

Being a student worker at Chattanooga State for three years gave me tons of experience in the field of business administration. Later, I gained employment with both the State of TN Human Services and  State of TN Education departments. As a TDOE employee for seven years, it helped prepare me both professionally and ethically toward an even brighter career in education. I volunteer as a mentor for the State of Tennessee Mentor Program helping high school students and other young adults see the importance of college. My passion for education has helped me grow as I help the community and express the need to be determined. So, in 2019, I’ve added helping inner city communities with new strategies of teaching children entrepreneurship and budgeting.

Meanwhile, as a single parent you always think about the daily life expenses of paying tuition, bills, food, medical expenses, and it becomes impossible to think about paying for college for yourself. But, you know what? TN Reconnect provided two classes to me tuition-free!  What’s even greater is that after going over my transcript, I only have two more classes before I obtain another degree! Go MOM and Prioritizer! So yes, I will walk the stage again in May 2019 with AAS degree. The tuition-free program is great and you are treated like a friend and family member by generous, kind individuals; or shall I say- TEAM? Personally, I would love to thank Mrs. Barker, who is awesome!

The Journey is yours and no one else’s. Determination is contagious, so spread it wisely. Many people don’t understand that they are their own light, so shine brightly. Speaking as a single parent, if I can do it, then you can too! Don’t allow anyone to dim your light of success. We all make our own stairways and the paths to follow! Coming back to school is great! Building an educational legacy is priceless!

Lonnie Williams - age 37 (Business Program)

Lonnie WilliamsMy college journey began back in 2013. I was living in Wise, VA, working for Lowe’s. I made the decision that I wanted to go back to school, so I contacted the school and began the process to start in the spring of that year. After filling out the FASFA, I was excited to learn that I had been granted a few scholarships that were enough to cover my tuition. I had to cover the price of my books, and I was ok with that. The semester went great.

After completing my first semester, I was excited to begin my second. Because I had started in the spring, I had to complete the FASFA again for the fall. I was so excited and motivated because of how the previous semester had gone. You can’t imagine my disappointment when I learned that I made too much money to receive any scholarships – I was devastated. How could I make too much money when outside of my regular bills I didn’t have nearly enough to pay for college? Unfortunately, college had to take a back burner because I could not afford it.

Fast forward a few years … I had moved from Virginia back home to Georgia (to help take care of my mother who was given a few months to live). It was now 2019 and I was now in Tennessee. Going back to school was something that I had wanted to do ever since it took a back burner in 2013, but now I was nearly six years older and I wasn’t sure that going back to college at age 36 would be possible. One day, I was talking to a friend who attends UTC, and I mentioned that I had wanted to go back to school but my work schedule would not allow the time and I wasn’t sure if it was right for me anymore. He mentioned that Chattanooga State had a good online program and that the state of Tennessee had a program called the Tennessee Reconnect program which was an effort by the state to encourage adults to return to school.

Fast forward another year and a half. I am so glad I took his advice and looked into the online program at ChattState and the TN Reconnect program. I am entering my final year at ChattState. All my classes have been taken through the online program. Thanks to the TN Reconnect program I will be graduating with $0 in student loans. I am so happy that my thoughts and fears about returning to college as an adult student were wrong. It thrills me to know I am making my family proud by being the first to have a college diploma. Without the TN Reconnect program and ChattState’s online program this would not be possible for me, so I will ever be grateful for both.  

Kelli Yates - age 42 (Management Program)

Kelli YatesFor many years, I was the girl who loved learning and hated school. Sitting in rows and not talking or creating was not only unappealing but painful to do. I wanted to ask questions and have an opinion. I did not want to memorize but theorize.

My first son was born in 2001 when I was 21-years-old. I re-enrolled at Chattanooga State because it felt like the “thing to do,” but I quickly fell into the same feeling of dreading going to school every day. I was not focused and had no idea of what I wanted to do after college. I dropped out for the second time and life started happening. My second son was born in 2003 and I became a full-time stay-at-home mom. When the boys got older and therefore more independent, I started working outside the home. I loved working and making my own money, but I noticed that the people around me who had college degrees not only made a lot more money than me, but they had more freedom and were more respected by their colleagues. I felt like I was just as intelligent and knowledgeable as those people, but the thought of going back to college was just entirely too overwhelming and I made every excuse not to go back.

In 2018 everything changed for me. My sister, Dr. Karen Eastman, worked at Chattanooga State as a professor and later a department head since 2004, and she called me one day and encouraged me to come on board to a temporary position as a secretary in the Success Coach office. I loved my new job and was hired in a permanent position. I started reading up on TN Reconnect and all that it offered. I read testimonials from other students and was amazed at how many lives paralleled mine. This feeling made me enroll as a half-time student and I was off and running from that point! The classes were interesting and engaging, and the professors genuinely cared about my success. Chattanooga State is an amazing place. When my daughter came along in 2020, she motivated me, even more, to continue my path to graduation.

In the spring of 2022, I will graduate with not one, but two associate degrees. I realized that I loved school and that I could continue to be a full-time wife, mother, employee, and student. My husband and I have been married for 19 years and I am so thankful for his support and love during my return to school. He makes it possible for me to pursue my dreams. I will go on to earn a bachelor's degree, but I am not putting a timetable on when that will happen. I am just going to do what I can when I can and keep moving forward. No matter how slow you go, forward is always better than stopped.