Category: Blog

Don’t Just Go, FINISH! GRAD Scholars Meet the Challenge

A guest blog from Cynthia Manning-Dirl

Knox Education Foundation Pathways Manager

It’s Graduation Season! Congratulations to all our Project GRAD Scholars for meeting the challenge, “Don’t Just Go, Finish!”

In honor of their accomplishment, we provide them with an authentic Kente cloth stole embroidered “Don’t Just Go, Finish!” on one side and “GRAD Knoxville” on the other as a keepsake for their hard work. Our Scholars look forward to receiving this memento to wear proudly in their post-secondary photos and graduation ceremony.

It takes a village to support and encourage our students as they pursue their post-secondary pathways, and we are honored to have been a part of their village along the way. For some, this village started in elementary school while for others, it may have started once they entered high school, but regardless of the start time, we share in their families’ excitement and joy as they walk across their post-secondary stage to receive their credentials. We join classmates, teachers, principals, GRAD Summer Institute directors and faculty in celebrating them. Here are our graduates for Summer & Fall 2022:

We wish them all well on their next adventure whether it’s graduate studies or entering into the workforce. We know they will do well! CONGRATULATIONS SCHOLARS!


East Tennessee Woman Becomes Haslam Scholar

A guest blog from Fulton Class of 2022 Project GRAD Scholar, Jahneulie West

Jahneulie West is the first student from Fulton High School in Knoxville to receive the prestigious Haslam Scholars scholarship, which covers tuition, fees, housing, and funding to support her individual research at University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).

Jahneulie West with Project Grad Knoxville Christi Kirk

Jahneulie West with Project Grad Knoxville Christi Kirk

We met Jahneulie through Strong Women Strong Futures network member Project GRAD. Back in the fall of 2018, Jahneulie participated in a network initiative to test messages about postsecondary education, for which Project GRAD ran focus groups to get feedback.

During the focus group, Jahneulie showed great insight, initiative, and leadership. Afterwards, she began inquiring about other college and educational opportunities that were historically for upperclassmen.

Jahneulie went on to complete the Project GRAD Summer Institute, a coding camp with GRAD at Pellissippi during the school year, and two summer programs with the University of Tennessee Women in Business and Business Education for Talented Students, during the summer of 2020. Next, Jahneulie was selected as a Bank of America intern, where she served with The Restoration House, another member of the Women’s Fund Network. These opportunities gave her exposure and experience to win the prestigious Haslam Scholars scholarship.

Let’s learn more about this incredible young lady in her own words:

“When I was younger, I told my mom that I would be attending college and she wouldn’t have to pay a dime. Now in hindsight, my younger self had zero clue about just how expensive attending college would be, but I was determined to make it happen. Over a decade later with lots of hard work and taken opportunities, what started as comforting words to my mom became my reality.

As a first-generation American and college student, I never would have imagined having my current accomplishments under my belt with endless possibilities to come. I was one of two students chosen to represent Fulton High School in the 2021 Youth Leadership Knoxville cohort (The Best Class Ever). I was also one of two students chosen in Knoxville to participate in the Bank of America Student Leaders program. The Knoxville Area Urban League awarded me the Scholar of the Year Award this past May. Then just a month later I graduated as Salutatorian from Fulton High School in Knoxville, TN. All those accomplishments led into my most recent and most inspiring accomplishment – being named one of only fifteen Haslam Scholars of the 2022 cohort at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Jahneulie in her Fulton High School Cap and Gown

Jahneulie in her Fulton High School Cap and Gown

I vividly remember talking to my mom the night that Ms. Xylina Marshall came to Fulton to discuss the honors programs at UTK as it made that much of an impact on me. Now one thing about me is that I always strive to accomplish the “impossible” and most times I’m ready to go for it, but that was not the case with the Haslam Scholars program. This seemed so lofty, and my fears of being an imposter started setting in. I know I work hard but sometimes that voice in my head tells me that I don’t belong somewhere, and I am an imposter. The number of times I have sat in a room and spent more time worrying about whether I’m sitting the right way, smiling the right way, or speaking the right way is sad. I came home that night and told my mom that for once I wouldn’t aim to be in the highest or most elite program that UTK had to offer and I internally criticized myself for using such “conceited” language, but it’s the truth and it’s my truth. I was willing to settle for a program that I wasn’t as excited about because I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be a Haslam Scholar.

Haslam Scholar Jahneulie

Haslam Scholar Jahneulie

All that changed – I decided to put myself out there and apply for the best! On March 6th, 2022, I received the call confirming that I would be a Haslam Scholar. Ever since that day, the voice inside my head that told me I couldn’t do it has remained silent. I am proud to be Fulton’s first Haslam Scholar and I know for a fact that I will not be the last. It may sound ridiculous to some, but earning this title and this scholarship showed me that all my hard work was not for nothing. It showed me that now is not the time to give up, but the time to press on.

This confidence carries on as I plan my future – I will be entering UTK with a major in computer science and a minor in entrepreneurship. I will be the CEO and founder of my own IT company specializing in individualized online education and application development services.

The college application process was one of the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and discouraging experiences I have had thus far, but I learned that in the end it was all worth it. I would not be here today without the amazing support system of my family, Project GRAD Knoxville and my Fulton family. To everyone reading this, keep doing your best. Someone is watching, someone is seeing the effort that you are making, and what is meant to be yours will be. Have faith in whatever comforts you most and keep working and believing. I’ll end with a verse that kept me going and keeps me going in times of uncertainty.”

 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” 

Hebrews 11:1

Young Women Find Career Inspiration Through Medical Interpreting Program

Language barriers in the healthcare setting cause major disparities in care and can have profound consequences for people’s health. A new medical interpreting program at Knoxville-based (and Strong Women Strong Futures Network member) Centro Hispano is helping address this problem, and giving girls and young women the opportunity to envision new careers while giving back to their community.

Medical Interpreter

Medical Interpreter’s Program First Cohort

Centro Hispano’s Medical Interpreting Cohort grew out of near-constant requests for qualified Spanish-speaking interpreters in medical settings in the East Tennessee community. The program aims to contribute to a more equitable healthcare landscape by addressing the inequalities that exist for non-English-speaking populations.

Laura, a recent Karns High School graduate in Knoxville, grew up as the daughter of Hispanic immigrant parents watching them struggle to express themselves and navigate their new country due to the simple fact that they did not speak English.

Centro Hispano

Role Playing a Visit to a Doctor’s Office

“My parents have told me stories from work where their coworkers have looked down on them for having broken English. My dad once told me ‘No es fácil practicar inglés cuando la gente se burla de ti en lugar de ayudarte a aprender y es realmente des motivante.’” Translation: It’s not easy to practice English with people who make fun of you instead of helping you, and it’s really demotivating.

When people like Laura’s dad need to do simple things, like go to the doctor, the language barrier and lack of interpreters can make them feel helpless and unable to properly communicate, which may discourage them from seeking necessary health care in the first place.

Laura first learned about Centro Hispano during her senior year of high school and quickly got involved with several of the programs that Centro offered. “Being part of Centro Hispano’s interpreter program has given me the opportunity to give back to my community,” she says. She feels she has already learned so much through the process including that she has the ability to help others, and that being an interpreter is more than just translating words. Per Laura, “I also learned that taking part in this program will help me gain confidence and experience, which will help me improve my translation skills.”

Like Laura, Centro Hispano’s interpreters in-training have become even more passionate about being a part of a more fair and equitable system, they have grown their confidence, and they are working hard to further develop their skills. For many of them, this program will serve as a stepping stone to becoming certified interpreters, or a future career in medicine.

Isabella, another female student taking part in the Medical Interpreters Program, stated of the program “It’s been an amazing course; full of new things, experiences, terms, and most importantly the infinite learning we are acquiring.  I have learned the importance and value of our Hispanic community. I have also learned how to be a leader.. I hope to gain experience & knowledge for my upcoming futuro y especialmente para mi carrera that is going to involve Hispanic children.”

Centro Hispano has full confidence that helping to bridge the gaps between medical service providers and Spanish-speaking patients will improve outcomes not only for patients but also for interpreters themselves, who, through this training program, are now envisioning new careers and futures.

Learning how to be an Interpreter

Learning Best Practices for How to be an Interpreter

Someday, Centro hopes to have in-house medical interpreters who can be scheduled through Centro on an as-needed basis. Since this is still a pilot program in its infancy, the future possibilities are endless, and we are excited to see where this journey takes them.

As best stated by Laura, “What makes the difference is the ability to make someone feel at ease in situations where they feel the most vulnerable, which I believe is essential when living in such a diverse country.”

Meet Lucia, The Pro-Education Pup from Oneida

By Liz Thacker, Strong Women Strong Futures Navigator

One early Monday morning in June, I walked into the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands for my initial visit with the organization. As I sat in their conference room talking and getting to know their executive director Kellie and forensic interviewer Sonni, I heard a random clicking sound. I must have had an inquisitive face, as Sonni immediately smiles and says Lucia is coming for a visit. Lucia? I turn around and this beautiful yellow lab comes walking in wagging her tail and dragging her leash behind her (the source of the clicking noise). Lucia’s gentle, easy-going spirit instantly brought a calmness and smile to my face. I had to know more about this amazing employee and her role at the Center.

Strong Women TN Facility DogChildren’s Center first learned about facility dogs after hearing many amazing stories about the difference being made through a facility dog from the Cookeville Children’s Advocacy Center, so they decided this was a must to go on their wish list. Through a grant given by Canine Companions, the Children’s Center was able to go down and be matched with Lucia.

Lucia, a seven-year-old golden lab, started her service in the fall of 2017 as the first working facility dog in all East Tennessee. Currently there are four working facility dogs housed in child advocacy centers in East Tennessee, with two of them residing in the 8th Judicial District, which covers Claiborne, Fentress, Scott, Campbell and Union counties. These highly trained facility dogs are allowed into forensic interviews with child victims of sexual and physical abuse. If a prosecutor decides to move a case forward, Lucia accompanies the victim every step of the way, including sitting with them if they must testify at a trial. The services that Lucia is able to provide to child victims is made possible through her training she received from Canine Companions.

When Lucia is not sitting in on forensic interviews, she is in training to be a spokesperson for the network. She wants to help in the mission of bringing about awareness of post-secondary education to young women and girls. As part of this work, Lucia posed for a picture to accompany a social media post stating: “Post-secondary education was and is important to Lucia too! She had to complete and graduate advanced training in order to do her job and make a difference at the Children’s Center…..What do you want your future to look like? What difference do you want to make? Continuing your education after school can help put those goals within your reach!! To learn more visit”

Learn more about Lucia and her counterpart in the 8th Judicial Court Orville in Facility Dogs: A Game Changer.

8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler with a facility dogs Orville and Lucia and their handlers, Mackenzie Adkins and Sonni Reagan.


Drive On: One Woman Jump-Starts a Truck-Driving Career

13.7% – that is the percentage of professional drivers who are female, according to the Women in Trucking Association (WIT).

While this number might seem small, this is an increase of more than three percent since 2019. WIT prides themselves that at a time when the trucking industry is significantly struggling to recruit and keep an adequate number of professional drivers, the number of women earning their Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs) and becoming professional drivers has continued to grow in recent years, even through a pandemic. Getting a CDL is no easy feat, but it is key to starting a career as a truck driver. A few of the specific qualifications needed include passing a Department of Transportation (DOT) physical, passing a DOT drug screen, meeting the age requirements and having a good driving record.

Right here in East Tennessee, we have someone adding her contribution to this ever-growing number of women in the truck driving field.

JuanitaMeet Juanita!

A couple of years ago, Juanita moved into The Restoration House (TRH) with her two small children. The Restoration House is a Strong Women Strong Futures network member whose mission is to “help restore single mothers and their children back to God’s good intent for their lives. Through supportive transitional housing, ally teams, family advocacy, and youth development, TRH walks alongside low-income single-parent families, helping them break harmful cycles and regain home and a future.” When Juanita moved into TRH, she had her permanent residency and had big goals of becoming a United States citizen and a truck driver!

For two years, she participated in an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at a local community college as she also prepared to take her citizenship test.

With determination, grit, and perseverance, she not only completed ESOL, but also enrolled in a truck driving program. Juanita met many challenges, but she kept her goals in mind and kept going to successfully complete the program with her commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Juanita wasn’t finished with her goals. Just a few months after completing truck driving school, she made the trip to Nashville, TN and passed her citizenship test on her first try!

Juanita’s story demonstrates the power of perseverance and post-secondary education.

Juanita is living proof that pursuing post-secondary education — whether that’s at a college, technical school, or certificate program — can open so many doors for families and change their life trajectories.

Juanita’s journey has not been easy, with multiple barriers along the way, but she never gave up. She was able to achieve her two goals along with so much more through her time at TRH!

We could not be prouder of her!