Martin Methodist takes steps to create college culture
There’s a saying that comes up a lot in the rural patch of southern Middle Tennessee surrounding Martin Methodist College.
Don’t act above your raising.
It’s a sentiment administrators say they face often in a 13-county region where the percentage of adults with a college degree lags well below the state’s average. The challenge for the small liberal arts college about 20 miles north of the Alabama border is to sell whole families on the benefits of higher education when it has been seen as out of reach for generations.
State and local officials say it is crucial that colleges like Martin Methodist are successful in their missions to create a college-going culture. Gov. Bill Haslam has said 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans must have a college education by 2025 in order to satisfy the growing demands of new businesses, and that number currently sits at 37.85 percent statewide.
Martin Methodist President Ted Brown, who announced in September that he will retire in 2017, has spent the last few years of his tenure developing aggressive initiatives that he believes will boost the college’s local profile in and around Giles County and convince more people to enroll.
“There are needs here, but more importantly there is opportunity here — enormous opportunity,” Brown said recently during an interview on campus. “The time is right for us to strike.”
Experts on college access say that early exposure to college staff and faculty could play a key role in convincing young people that they should eventually pursue higher education. Brown took that to heart, and he regularly highlights a number of new programs to bring young students into the college’s orbit early and often.
“We need to be the catalyst from the very beginning so that they will be ready to go to college when the time comes,” Brown said.
Reaching into grade schools
One of Brown’s biggest recent moves was to add a nationally known education expert to the college’s senior leadership team.
Judy Cheatham, who has been at the center of trend-setting research on literacy for decades, was named Martin Methodist’s first-ever provost in 2015. This year, she put her experience to use by bringing Martin Methodist-backed instruction into Giles County schools for a summer reading camp funded by a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.
During the camp, Cheatham and other Martin Methodist employees worked together with state officials and district teachers to improve reading scores for a small cohort of low-performing first, second and third graders. The students read books that were specially chosen to highlight art, science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts that they could continue to follow years later in college.
While the camp was not a focused recruitment effort, Cheatham said her research shows it could encourage more students to start thinking about their educational goals before they hit middle school. Flipping through a book about buildings she selected to help low-performing students develop their reading skills, she pointed out how simple stories could subtly introduce profound concepts.
“If you don’t know what an architect is, how are you going to learn to be an architect?” Cheatham said. “We’re making these children enticed by reading.”
Initial data suggest the camp was a success — all but one of the 26 students involved logged improved reading scores. Bolstered by those results, the college hopes to make the camp an annual program.
Another growing program out of the Martin Methodist music department is bringing low-income children to campus for one-on-one music lessons led by college students. Founded in 2014, the program includes elementary school students from Giles County and members of the Boys & Girls Club of Pulaski for guitar and piano lessons. Each round of lessons culminates in a recital for family members.
In 2016, the music program expanded to include violin, mandolin and cello lessons. College students also started teaching lessons off campus, opening the program to more kids outside of Giles County.
Officials say the program has double-sided benefits.
In a campus publication, program organizer Melissa Martiros, a music professor, said the lessons gave a freshman Martin Methodist student a reason to stick with his schooling: he wanted to make sure his young pupils kept learning.
In areas where fewer people pursue higher education, it is crucial to “de-mystify” the college experience and “neutralize the fear” some families have about it, said Troy Grant, who oversees college access initiatives for younger students across the state with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Working alongside college students could expose young children to “successful versions of themselves” at a pivotal age, he said.
“In the same way that we expose students to algebra or biology, we need to expose them to college options,” Grant said. “Once we get to the junior or senior year of high school, it’s almost too late.”
Support needed in college, too
But even as Martin Methodist is investing in programming for younger students, administrators say it is just as important to address the hurdles first-generation college students hit after they have applied. They put intense focus on shepherding applicants through the process and then pulling them along when the challenges of college life settle in.
Robby Shelton, Martin Methodist’s vice president for campus life and enrollment management, who will serve as interim president following Brown’s retirement, said he personally calls applicants every couple of weeks to make sure they are making their way through their pre-college checklist.
Gracelyn Dodson, a freshman who was the first in her family to go to college, said Shelton invited her and her mother to campus to fill out the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a notoriously cumbersome questionnaire that can be especially intimidating for first-generation students.
“That’s what makes my mom excited about this place,” she said.
Dodson said the support didn’t stop after she moved to campus in the heart of Pulaski, a town of about 7,617 that is bordered by sweeping fields and farms. During walks on campus she bumps into the admissions counselor who convinced her to come to Martin Methodist in the first place, and she wasn’t surprised when she heard some professors call students to wake them up for morning classes.
For Dodson, who came from the small town of Huntland, where many of her friends lived on farms and “everyone knew everyone,” that kind of tight-knit community has made for a smooth transition.
“It’s just so cool to come to college and have something like that (hometown) experience,” she said. She described Martin Methodist as her way of “using stepping stones to get to this great big world from little bitty Huntland.”
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and at Twitter @tamburintweets.
About Martin Methodist College
Location: Pulaski, about 70 miles south of Nashville
After more than a century as a junior college, Martin Methodist transitioned to become a four-year institution in 1993. The college recently began offering master’s level courses in business, and college leaders expect more master’s level offerings in the near future.
Article c/o The Tennessean