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COMMENTARY: Education: Bigger than grades; preparation for life

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By Tracy D. Hall, President of Southwest Tennessee Community College

During our second annual Southwest Workforce Center Open House and Career Fair on April 18 at the Macon Cove Campus, alumnus Calvin Sanford shared his story of overcoming a life of crime and lack of opportunity to his transformation into a successful entrepreneur.

Dr. Tracy D. Hall
President of Southwest Community College

Calvin’s journey to Southwest took 10 years, as life presented him with detours. He was a single father at 19 who found himself dealing and using drugs that landed him in jail 26 times. After his last arrest, the prosecutor gave him three choices — jail, probation with diversion, or school. He chose school and enrolled at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Determined to turn his life around and be a better role model for his children, Calvin took full advantage of his time at Southwest. He became active in clubs and activities, achieving a 4.0 grade point average, earning a place on the Dean’s List, and in the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society. He credits Southwest faculty and staff mentors with giving him the opportunity and “grace” to change his life. At Southwest, Calvin also met his wife, and they eventually had two daughters, aptly named Dream and Genesis.

Upon graduating from Southwest in 2018 with an Associate of Science in Accounting, the Shelby County Criminal Clerk’s Office agreed to expunge his record. With a new beginning, Calvin transferred to Christian Brothers University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Marketing in 2020. Calvin is now the Chief Executive Officer and director of Marketality, LLC, a Mid-South marketing agency.

Calvin shares his story with youth on the wrong side of the law who have made poor decisions and he motivates them to see beyond their circumstances. In a recent WMC-TV5 news story, he said, “I was young and a product of my environment. It’s no excuse, but it is what it is. If you grow up with less opportunity, if you grow up around trouble, if you grow up around negativity, then more than likely you’re going to convert to that.”

“Education is bigger than grades. Your life literally changes when you walk in that path.” | Calvin Sanford, Southwest Tennessee Community College and Christian Brothers University Alumnus, CEO of Marketality, LLC

Calvin’s story of opportunity and redemption through education fuels our work at Southwest. As an open-access college and the second-largest higher education institution in Memphis, we meet students where they are and help take them to where they need to be. At Southwest, we don’t just teach. We counsel, mentor, guide, parent, love, and care for our students. Our nearly 8,000 students come to us with many challenges, from transportation, childcare issues, food, and housing insecurities to criminal records like Calvin’s. The work can sometimes be overwhelming, but it is what we, as a community college, are called to do—advance the community and its people.

We cannot just wait, though, until students reach our doors as adults. We have to reach them earlier and younger; we cannot, however, do it alone. This is why we are grateful to have collaborated with business, industry, and K-12 partners to sponsor career and technical boot camps for high school students.

During the Open House, a panel of our industry partners and high school students discussed their boot camp experiences. The overwhelming message from the industry leaders was a recognition of their corporate civic responsibility to nurture and grow young talent and provide them with positive experiences. The high school students shared how the CTE boot camps provided valuable career exposure, direction, and character-building opportunities that will benefit them now and in the future.

“I am afraid of heights and electricity. (But) I looked at everybody do it, and then I did it. So, I basically learned off of what they did.” | Student panelist recalling how he modeled his behavior after his peers during the MLGW Lineman Summer Boot Camp.

The youth panelists also said they would encourage their friends to participate in future career boot camps. This last point is perhaps most profound, given Calvin’s recounting of his negative youth environment. Young people with positive experiences influence other young people to choose better and be better.

By choosing education, Calvin Sanford discovered a talent he never knew he had. K-12, higher education, and business and industry partnerships are investments in young people that can help them recognize their potential sooner. As the saying goes, building strong children is easier (and perhaps less expensive) than repairing broken men and women.

For partnering with Southwest to build strong children through hands-on career education experiences, many thanks to Memphis Shelby County Schools Division of College, Career and Technical Education, Arlington Schools, Germantown Municipal Schools, Collierville Schools, Memphis Light Gas and Water, Stryker Corporation, Atlantic Track and Turnout Company, City of Memphis Office of Youth Services, TechEd2Go and the parents and guardians of the boot camp participants.

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