Cindy Taylor, Director of the Upper Cumberland Tennessee Reconnect Community, centered in Cookeville, TN, describes how her community first began to address adult degree completion and some of their wins early on. The Tennessee Reconnect Communities (TRCs) are part of the statewide adult education attainment initiative put forth by Governor Haslam.
How did an adult completion agenda first come about in Upper Cumberland?
Six months prior to the RFP being issued for the Tennessee Reconnect Community (TRC), a group of business owners, Chamber and higher education representatives formed a committee called the Upper Cumberland Talent Development Roundtable. The committee convened to assess the gaps in preparing the workforce to meet the region’s needs. Within six months, the conclusion of the committee was that the postsecondary level of adults in the Upper Cumberland must improve to meet the growing demands in the workplace. In the sixth month, the RFP for TN TRCs was issued, which aligned seamlessly with the committee’s findings. The Upper Cumberland TN Reconnect Community was once of the first three TRCs to be established in Tennessee.
How did you start to build your site staff?
Building upon the job description for the Graduate! Network’s Student Success Advisors, we began to search for advisors who would be excellent problem solvers and would have the heart for adult learners. We hired the lead advisor and from that, reached out to those who we knew fit the description of an advisor for the Upper Cumberland TRC. Thus, the Dream Team was born!
How does your advising staff work collaboratively to better serve Reconnectors?
When we first launched, we held weekly advisor meetings so we could share best practices. Those have evolved into biweekly meetings as the first year has progressed. When a new advisor is hired, we use the “I do, we do, you do” strategy for on-boarding. The new advisor meets with the experienced advisor, as the experienced advisor calls, texts, and emails the Reconnectors in their caseload. In the “I do” phase, the new advisor listens and asks questions as the experienced advisor models how to communicate with our Reconnectors. “We do” consists of the new advisor beginning to make the phone calls with the experienced advisor assisting, making suggestions and supporting the new advisor. Then it is time for “you do” – the new advisor begins to serve Reconnectors, knowing the experienced advisor is always there to answer questions or provide support.
We found duplicative research was being conducted by our advisors. Even with weekly meetings, it was difficult to share knowledge in a way that could be easily accessed. We now use Livebinder, an online, digital binder where we store important phone numbers, information about what each specific HEI offers, scholarship information and much more! Now the work each of us does is shared with the entire group so that advisory time is spent on the Reconnector, not on research that someone else in the group has already done.
How has being part of a statewide adult education initiative impacted the work that you do?
Our impact on adult education is greater… we have a built in support system, others we can call for best practices. We have a greater impact on workforce development. An article published in a Nashville paper affects the work done in the Upper Cumberland. Marketing is multiplied. The possibility for funding is multiplied. The effect is multiplied.
What has helped you to accelerate your work and impact?
We changed our marketing focus to reflect the best research of what motivates adult learners. We originally thought adults would be motivated by higher paying jobs – thus the marketing slogan of “TurboCharge Your Career.” Analytics from our own data and national research pointed to personal satisfaction as the motivating force. Our new slogan is “Turn Your Dream into a Degree!” and we tweaked the original slogan to “Turbocharge Your Future.”
Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships… with business, churches, community groups and HEIs
What types of impacts have you seen since the Upper Cumberland Tennessee Reconnect Community launched?
Adult learners have been the ‘lost step child’ within the postsecondary world of the Upper Cumberland. We commonly find that HEIs do not see the value in adult students so are hesitant to accommodate them. Being able to share our retention rate has begun to change these attitudes. HEIs are impressed by and looking for successful programs. This program works and now we have the data to prove it.
Silos are being shaken… the adult learner is being seen as a vital element of workforce development across our region.
What have been your early big wins?
Isn’t it interesting when forces begin to align that have been in the making for quite some time? Our initial goal was to reach 400 Reconnectors in the first year. We have reached thousands in the first ten months. Our advisors are serving 800 Reconnectors, with 113 enrolled in colleges. Our first Reconnector graduated in December, 2016, with another graduate expected in April.
What continues to motivate you to be a part of this work?
This is the best job experience I have ever had! Who else gets to make dreams come true every day? The Reconnector stories inspire me. The people I work with are amazing. Our region is progressing. This has always been my life’s dream… to make a difference in the lives of others. That is the work of the Upper Cumberland TN Reconnect Community.