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The Avenue

Two unique programs are helping Nashville adults go back to school

Laura Ward

Vice President of Talent Development - Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce

Even in a region experiencing unprecedented job growth and a city where unemployment is at a historic low, there are residents of Nashville, Tenn. still being left behind. Nashvillians understand the need for education beyond high school, but for many, the journey to a higher education degree or credential is complicated by barriers such as lack of transportation or reliable child care and balancing work, school, and family. Too often, they are left disconnected from vital resources that could support their goals.

Nashville is now working to close these equity gaps through a “sorting in” approach for education beyond high school. With the help of two novel programs— Reconnect Cafés and Reconnect Ambassadors—people can move into jobs with clear paths for growth in position and salary.

A place for food, drinks, and help getting a degree

In 2017, the Lumina Foundation designated Nashville as a Talent Hub, establishing a partnership between two local colleges, the chamber of commerce, and the city government to promote educational opportunities beyond high school. The Talent Hub focused on the Nashville Promise Zone, an economically disadvantaged part of the city where there are almost 53,000 adults without a postsecondary degree or credential.

Many Promise Zone residents are seeking postsecondary education while also trying to support themselves and their families, which forces them to address potential barriers such as limited transportation, food insecurity, and child care responsibilities. Understanding this, the Talent Hub partnership opened three Reconnect Cafés on the campuses of Nashville State Community College. These cafés serve as gathering places for students to access on- and off-campus resources that address barriers to education. Mobile Reconnect Cafés go even further in meeting students where they are, bringing those resources to places of business, community-based organizations, jails, and other places where adults need support in completing their educations.

Reconnect Cafés have become a critical connection point for students to find not only resources but also community support and coaching. This past October, Candace—a student at Nashville State Community College—walked into the Reconnect Café in tears. She signed in, grabbed a drink and a snack, and spoke to Fred Frazier, the “Reconnect Navigator” in charge of the Café, about how she was worried she wouldn’t pass her Anatomy and Physiology class. Candace was considering dropping the course—she was the oldest person in the class, and didn’t feel like she knew how to study.

Reconnect Cafés have become a critical connection point for students to find not only resources but also community support and coaching.

Frazier reminded Candace that, while it might have been a few years since she was in school, she had years of experience on those younger students. The two of them walked through what she was already doing to study and then strategized on how she could prepare for her next class and, eventually, the exam. Candace was also working the late shift on her job and had trouble making time to study, so Frazier gave her study resources and outlined how she might talk to her supervisor about her work schedule. When she left the Café, Candace had stopped crying, and thanked Frazier for the help.

Frazier and his colleague Sandra Timberlake serve students at three Reconnect Cafés on the campuses of Nashville State Community College. Between the two of them, they track and support 900 adults who are in the process of returning to school or completing a degree or credential (and these services help an additional 1,200 adults in Davidson County). They reach out at critical times during the semester or before classes begin, nudging them to do what it takes to stay enrolled. Building relationships with adult learners, we hope, means students will feel comfortable asking for help and support, or just a friendly face to walk them through the day-to-day of balancing priorities and getting through a semester.

“The Reconnect Café has become a vital part of how Nashville State Community College supports students,” Dr. Shanna Jackson, president of Nashville State Community College, said of the program. “The entire team of faculty, staff and community partners are supporting our students so they can prosper while they are on campus and thrive in the workplace upon graduation.”

Placing ambassadors for education into communities

Reconnect Cafés help students who have already made it to campus, but the Talent Hub team also needed to “sort in” residents who had not yet made the leap back to school. That’s how the Nashville Reconnect Ambassador Program started. If Reconnect Navigators are the Talent Hub’s core service providers, Reconnect Ambassadors serve as community-embedded lead generators.

Returning to school is a big decision for an adult, and often, they do not make that choice just because someone from a school or chamber of commerce asked them to. They talk to their friends, coworkers, and church community about their decision. So the Reconnect Ambassador Program trains people across these communities on how to connect others to educational help and resources.

In 2019, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce trained over 160 people across the city to serve as Reconnect Ambassadors, with efforts concentrated in the Promise Zone. Resources for this program were paid for by the Chamber and the Lumina Talent Hub grant.

Tennessee has trained hundreds of Reconnect Ambassadors, focusing on state agencies, employers, and community members who want to support adults in completing a degree or credential. In 2019, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce trained over 160 people across the city to serve as Reconnect Ambassadors, with efforts concentrated in the Promise Zone. Resources for this program were paid for by the Chamber and the Lumina Talent Hub grant.

“We are giving people who want to grow in their education the positive reinforcement they need to get started on that journey,” Lynn Booker, Reconnect Ambassador at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said. “And helping connect them with the Navigators who can help make it all happen.”

Human development leads to economic development

We know that educational attainment is one of the best predictors of economic success for an individual, organization, or community. But, too often, those who have not dealt with the challenges of economic scarcity underestimate how hard it is for a lower-income individual to invest in that educational pursuit.

Reconnect Cafés and Reconnect Ambassadors offer adults the support they need to complete their education. When we are intentional about sorting them into the system, people are more likely to graduate and move confidently into a career pathway that provides opportunities for personal and economic growth.

Four minutes at the Reconnect Café was all Candace needed to get through an incredibly frustrating moment, at least on that day. Candace earned a “B” in her Anatomy and Physiology class, and is still pursuing her associate degree. Every so often, she still drops by the café for a snack and some encouragement.

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