My name is Virginia Hughes, I am 23 years old, and I am from Maryville, Tennessee. Thanks to the Tennessee Promise, I am now the first in my family to graduate from college.
I always wanted to go to college growing up, but because of our financial situation, my parents told me they didn’t think it was possible. They hadn’t gone to college, and my older brother didn’t even pursue the idea because of the cost. In my area, folks find a job at the automotive manufacturing plant and hope something better comes along. I had a nagging feeling that college was a dream that wouldn’t come true for me.
My family said if I could find a way to pay for college, they would support me all the way. My guidance counselor told me that I qualified for a first generation scholarship through what would later become the Tennessee Promise program, which now extends free tuition to students across the state. I filled out all the paperwork with my family and was accepted at Pellissippi State Community College.
I had no idea what to expect heading into my first semester of college. Thankfully, the Tennessee Promise assigned me a mentor – Laura Harill – who was there for me every step of the way. She walked me through how to fill out financial aid forms, helped me master the study skills I would need to succeed, and helped keep me on track.
While the Promise program covered my tuition for two full years, I still needed to pay for books, supplies, and my transportation to and from class, so I worked a part-time job and picked up extra shifts on the weekends. Over the summer and during breaks, I worked full time. It was a struggle, but I knew the Promise program was doing its part, so I wasn’t afraid to do mine.
I went on to make the Dean’s list every semester and graduated with honors before moving on to the University of Tennessee, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in anthropology. It’s been a dream come true for me and my family.
None of this would have been possible without the Tennessee Promise. It opened doors for me by providing the financial resources and mentorship to help me succeed. I am giving back to the program by mentoring five students while I apply to graduate school in forensic anthropology. As a member of a military family, I hope to work for JPAC – a program that identifies the bodies of fallen soldiers and brings them home to their families.
Because this program helped me get started, I was able to go above and beyond what most people in my hometown dream of accomplishing. I put my mind to earning a degree, and my outcome was determined not by my childhood financial situation but by how hard I worked. I want this same opportunity for other students.
That’s why I support Heads Up America. We need to open doors for all hardworking students to follow their college dreams. Join the movement.