Gaining Speed: Mobilizing and Early Wins in Memphis

David Williams, President & CEO of Leadership Memphis and founder of Graduate Memphis! describes how his community first began to address adult degree completion and some of their wins early on.

How did an adult completion agenda first come about in Memphis?

In late 2009 Leadership Memphis took up the challenge as issued by CEO’s for Cities to increase the post-secondary attainment rate by 1%. We pulled together a table of key stakeholders under the Talent Dividend to meet this need and in May 2010 our work got underway by speaking to key stakeholders and understanding the need. One of the major needs expressed by our college presidents was for the creation of a college resource center. This was a challenge for many of the institutions. They acknowledged that the hassle factor of navigating numerous offices and systems was a major barrier to getting many individuals into school. Initially we looked to serve both youth and adults in this resource center but as a community we decided to hone in on the adult population. We applied for a grant from the Plough Foundation for this much needed work. Shortly thereafter we met with Graduate! Philadelphia (the flagship site of The Graduate! Network) and were impressed with their work. With the Graduate! Network’s help and funding from the Plough Foundation we envisioned Graduate Memphis! and were up and running in 90 days.

Who were your first champions?

Our first two champions and leaders were a well-respected local business leader and philanthropist, and a member of our Memphis City School Board who was also Vice President at Teach for America. We also gained support early on from our local higher education institution presidents as well as the Plough Foundation.

How did you start to build your site staff?

We began with a volunteer and then a part-time employee and very shortly thereafter we received the grant from the Plough Foundation which allowed us to fund a full-time position to manage Graduate Memphis.

What types of impacts have you seen since Graduate! Memphis launched in 2012?

Overall the biggest impact Graduate Memphis has made is that we’ve helped to raise the awareness of adults going back to college. In the metro area we have close to 200,000 adults that have started and never finished their degree. Our staff has also done extensive outreach with business, higher education, local school districts, youth serving organizations and faith communities, messaging to several thousand adults. We know that many found the resources they needed through our outreach efforts and online resources, although we may never know their names. Many, however, prefer in-person help: by the end of our second year we had nearly 2,000 inquiries at the center and were advising over 400 adults. More than 250 of them are already back in school. Moving forward we hope to reach close to 1,000 comebackers and get them re-enrolled in school. Another key to our impact has been our physical presence in the main Library and that has been a very positive thing for our community and raising the visibility of our work.

What has helped you to accelerate your work and impact?

The sheer amount of expertise and the turn-key solutions the Graduate! Network has shared and continues to create and share have been very helpful in accelerating our work and impact here in Memphis.


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