Mentees and mentors recognized at SMARTS Culminating Experience

When Jacqueline and Theodora Asamoah came to the United States in 2017 from Ghana, West Africa, their mother quickly enrolled them for the fall semester at Southwest.

SMARTS honorees Jacqueline and Theodora Asamoah

SMARTS honorees Jacqueline and Theodora Asamoah

Determined to achieve success, the sisters became regular visitors to the Academic Support Center. That’s where they met Ronald Claxton, Associate Director of the Academic Support Center, who encouraged them to join the Southwest Mentors Advancing Retention, Teamwork, and Success or SMARTS program.

SMARTS literally changed their lives.

Jacqueline was paired up with Tiffany Akin, an English Instructor at Southwest, who served as her mentor. Although it took a while for her and her mentor to get started, Jacqueline said she was very glad she had Akin by her side to help guide and encourage her as she began her studies.

“Mr. Claxton encouraged me to get to know my mentor and I’m so glad I did,” Jacqueline said. “Ms. Akin has been very helpful.”

Theodora’s mentor was Dr. Shanita Brown, Executive Director of Enrollment Services, whom she credits with successfully helping her navigate her path on campus.

“She helped me with scholarships and everything,” Theodora said. “Sometimes when I just needed someone to talk to, I would go to her and she would give me advice on life and school. I’m thankful for all she’s done for me.”

The sisters will graduate with an Associate of Science degree in university parallel general studies and plan on continuing their education at Tennessee State University as pre-Med majors with a concentration in biology.

“We both want to be medical doctors,” Jacqueline said.

Jacqueline and Theodora were among the thirty-seven SMARTS mentees who took part in a Culminating Experience graduation ceremony on April 25.

The event was held in the ABC Room on the Macon Cove Campus, but for the first time in the program’s history, the ceremony was broadcast live at the Whitehaven Center and Union Avenue Campus.

The mentees, who will graduate in May, were presented with certificates, awards, and special medallions, and heard a speech from keynote speaker Carlos D. Smith, Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Research. The top six mentees were awarded $100 stipends. The ceremony also recognized the program’s 30 faculty and staff members who serve as mentors.

SMARTS was established in 2012 to help incoming students matriculate and graduate through mentoring relationships with faculty and staff who serve as an advocate, coach and advisor.

Claxton said the mentors help students with everything from showing them where things are located on campus to providing career counseling advice to cheering them on in their coursework.

“We often encounter students who are first-generation students, so this is their first encounter with college,” Claxton said, who speaks from experience. Claxton was nearly 50 years old when he went back to school to get his bachelor’s degree.

“I felt lost,” Claxton said. “It was a frightening experience to even step foot on campus.”

Claxton said the SMARTS program enrollment has changed dramatically since its inception. When he first started as a SMARTS mentor, 75 percent of the students were traditional students and only 25 percent were non-traditional. Today, those numbers have flipped. They are seeing more non-traditional adult students who are coming to college as part of the Tennessee Reconnect program.

Claxton mentors about 30 students personally. He also is passionate about making sure students who attend classes on campus in the evenings also connect with a mentor and get the guidance they need.  “I try and learn every mentee in the program because if they can’t find an actual mentor in their program, they can call me,” he said. “So I unofficially mentor almost everybody.”

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor, Executive Director of Retention and Student Success

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor, Executive Director of Retention and Student Success

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor, Executive Director of Retention and Student Success, served for two years as a SMARTS mentor. She said the program is one of the most important and successful programs on campus.

“We’ve seen the number of graduates increase every year since 2016, and we now have a retention rate of over 80 percent – compared to only 50 percent for students who are not in the program,” Taylor added. In fall 2016 when Taylor started as a mentor, there were 24 students enrolled. In fall 2018, there were 147 SMARTS recruits. Over 540 students total have participated in the program. They also have seen the number of mentors grow. Today, approximately 110 staff and faculty are currently participating as mentors.

Taylor said her goal is to see at least ten percent of the total student population—or 1,000 students—mentored on campus within the next two years.

“We know that mentoring is a high impact process,” Taylor said. “So to go from 24 mentees to over 500 in two years—that’s amazing to see. And to go from 24 mentors to over 100, that’s outstanding. We now have more adult learners who have asked for mentors than traditional students. That goes to show that people want guidance. They want support. And we have a great group of professionals who volunteer their time in addition to their regular roles to serve students in this way.”

Taylor is no longer serving as a mentor, but instead has taken on another role in SMARTS. She has turned her attention to procuring more funding for the program and students. A new scholarship program for adult learners has awarded nearly $40,000 in book scholarships to help students pay for textbooks, as well as access code fees to use online resources that cost as much as $150 each. And they secured an additional $10,000 for scholarships this year thanks to a partnership with the Office of Institutional Advancement.

“Yes, they get their Tennessee Promise and Reconnect for tuition, but books and fees are not paid for,” Taylor said. “So the Advancement Office came in behind us and added $10,000 to that.”

For her work with SMARTS, Taylor was awarded the first ROSE (Recognition for Outstanding Support and Excellence) award at the Culminating Experience.

“I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely overwhelmed by the expressions of love that each and every person in attendance showed me,” Taylor said. “My passion is serving students, and this unexpected honor was such a confirmation of the calling that God has placed in my life to provide student success solutions, services, and support for the students who choose Southwest as their best choice.”

Claxton said the ceremony is a wonderful way to celebrate the accomplishments of the mentees and the mentors.

“It’s really nice to see students recognized for staying the course and for being a successful mentee. That’s the message we want to send—that they can trust us to help and support them.”

Student Johari Hamilton was awarded the SMARTS Outstanding Mentee award.

Student Johari Hamilton was awarded the SMARTS Outstanding Mentee award.

Spring 2019 SMARTS graduates at their Culminating Experience.

Spring 2019 SMARTS graduates at their Culminating Experience.