I first heard about CMT’s “Empowering Education” initiative late last year when the country music network announced it would stage free concerts at four Tennessee community colleges this spring to encourage more Tennesseans to attend college. The concerts were targeted toward our colleges primarily serving rural areas where college-going rates are generally lower, and especially toward residents who may not have college on their radar.
I received early notice of the tour as one of 19 members of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs our state’s community and technical college system. I knew that with CMT involved, the concerts would be quality events – the network has a global reach and a prominent presence in Nashville, my hometown – but I really didn’t know how good it would be as I drove down to Motlow State Community College on a lovely spring evening in April for the third stop on the tour. (Yes, the college is named after that Motlow family, founders of another global brand from Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s.) The campus sits in a clearing in forested land donated by the family 50 years ago, a few miles outside of Lynchburg, whose population is still only slightly above the 361 people the distillery touted in its folksy advertising for years. Students drive from nearby towns and farms to the small, beautiful campus over winding two-lane roads through the scenic woods.
Motlow was one of the four campuses selected through a competitive process. CMT set high standards: the network supplied the artistic and support talent and paid for staging the events, which it wanted to be more than a musical concert. CMT wanted to reach a targeted audience with a message that college isn’t just an expensive, far-away institution for elites, out of reach for families with little or no college experience.
The CMT collaboration wanted to convince residents that they or their children, or both, can earn degrees or technical or occupational credentials that will lead to careers that can improve their families’ trajectories for generations. The collaboration wanted to show that community colleges are affordable places to earn associate degrees that lead either to immediate careers or toward universities and baccalaureate, graduate and professional degrees. And that college can also mean automotive technologies, computer information technology, HVAC, mechatronics, nursing, truck driving, welding and scores of other career fields in high demand.
“For the last four years CMT has partnered with community and technical colleges across the U.S., but this is an exciting time to embark on our first tour in our home state of Tennessee,” said Rachael Wall, director of Public Affairs, CMT. “By focusing CMT Empowering Education efforts in Tennessee – we can highlight all the impressive new programs and scholarships available to those continuing their education and be a catalyst of change for the future workforce of the Volunteer State.”
The tour amplified two important initiatives that provide tuition-free community and technical college for Tennesseans: Tennessee Promise for new high school graduates and Tennessee Reconnect for adults without a postsecondary degree or credential. It also supported the state’s “Drive to 55” goals — to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025.
So each concert tour stop included a small college fair, with advisors present to discuss programs, answer questions and start the enrollment process.
And inside the auditorium, CMT artist Stacey Cato opened with an on-stage panel discussion with four Motlow students about their career tracks and personal journeys. The mix of traditional young and non-traditional older students spoke of challenges they faced. I was touched by their stories and proud that our Board established relational advisors and success coaches on our campuses who, along with faculty members and other staff, are helping students overcome obstacles. One young woman, the first in her family to attend college, just completed her Motlow studies and is headed to Georgia Tech to pursue her new dream of becoming an engineer.
Their collective message: “If I can do this, you can do this. You’ll have to work hard but there are a lot of people on this campus who devote their lives to helping you succeed.”
Each college also selected their own musically talented students to perform as well. At Motlow, recent graduate Lauren Clardy took the stage with her award-winning fiddle-playing and singing skills. She was fantastic.
She was followed by the talented singer-songwriter Courtney Cole, one of CMT’s “Next Women of Country” rising stars who headlined all four tour stops with a range of rocking country songs and soft lyrical ballads, all of her own — and she was fabulous. Courtney was the ideal choice for the tour: a Louisiana native, young graduate of Belmont University in Nashville and a passionate supporter of education. She filmed short videos promoting the tours and did advance interviews with local media about the importance of education. Between songs, she spoke directly to attendees about how college enabled her to pursue her dreams and encouraged them to pursue theirs. Afterward, she posed for individual photos and selfies with scores of attendees.
CMT awarded two scholarships at each tour stop. Motlow President Michael Torrence and Laura Monks, president of our College of Applied Technology in nearby Shelbyville, announced the two local winners after a high school student from the audience drew the winning entry slips from a big country hat.
The events were attended by several hundred folks and were exciting and positive for our colleges. They helped build awareness in our rural areas of the importance of earning a degree or credential in fun, up-close ways that our traditional marketing efforts cannot. As a volunteer higher education advocate and board member, I’m grateful to CMT, Ms. Cole, Mr. Cato and the other professionals there for their generous support and advocacy for education. A great deal of work went on leading up to the tour, especially by CMT staffers Ellen Crowley and Rachael Wall and staff at our colleges and system office. We all agree that it was well worth it.
Joey Hatch was appointed to the Tennessee Board of Regents by then-Governor Bill Haslam in 2017. Before his retirement last year, he was Executive Vice President/General Manager for Skanska USA in the Midwest United States, overseeing offices in Tennessee and Ohio.
A Nashville native, Hatch attended Nashville State Community College and then Auburn University, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Building Construction. He spent 45 years in the construction industry, first with a Nashville-based company before joining Skanska in 1996. He was involved in over 200 major projects in 22 states totaling over $7.4 billion.
Hatch has a passion for issues related to diversity and inclusion and was instrumental in the development of Skanska’s Diversity Business Program. The program has since grown and become the international program for Skanska’s more than 55,000 employees worldwide. He was a founding member of Skanska’s National Diversity and Inclusion Council, where he served two terms. Skanska has won numerous awards under his leadership.
Hatch also serves as Board Chair of the Nashville State Community College Foundation and as a member of the boards of the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network Executive Council.
ABOUT CMT EMPOWERING EDUCATION:
CMT’s Empowering Education Initiative is the network’s comprehensive grassroots education campaign. Working in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges, the campaign has successfully hosted more than 30 events in 18 states, bringing star-power and helping put a face on education by highlighting success stories of students. Since 2014, the campaign has worked in some of the nation’s most economically-depressed regions to highlight the importance of earning a degree or certificate. Empowering Education provides both an online resource and on-the-ground support to aid prospective students in overcoming the most commonly perceived obstacles to furthering education. The initiative is founded on education research and insights through a partnership between Viacom and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Inaugural advising partners for the CMT Empowering Education campaign included Achieving the Dream, the Association of Career and Technical Education, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Workforce and Economic Development at the American Association of Community Colleges, the National Skills Coalition and Skills for America’s Future (the Aspen Institute).
ABOUT COURTNEY COLE:
A proud graduate of Belmont University, Courtney delivers a spirited live show with authentic lyrics. She has opened for the biggest names in country music like Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney and Thomas Rhett, and was named an artist to watch by Spotify and Huffington Post. She’s a vocal supporter of education, and has been named one of CMT’s “Next Women of Country.” Additionally, her latest single “Spiritual” is available via digital retailers. For more about Courtney, visit CourtneyColeMusic.com, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Her Empowering Education Tour PSA,