At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), alumna Tyshea S. Lewis has the rare distinction of directing an academic program in which she was the first graduate – an ironic future she didn’t foresee when she arrived at the scenic 210–acre campus in 2010.
Lewis leads the UNCG Guarantee Scholarship and Program, a selective initiative for low-income, high-achieving North Carolina residents that provides total or near-total financial aid for four years and co-curricular experiences designed to enhance scholars academically, professionally and personally. This school year’s new cohort of 33 brings to 299 the number of UNCG Guarantee scholars since the program was created with endowment funds from a multimillion-dollar gift made by an anonymous donor in 2009.
For Guarantee scholars, the free dollars help increase access and decrease anxiety while enrichment activities, career planning and a multifaceted mentoring component promote success in school and after.
“I’m in awe of my students all the time and the things they are able to accomplish,” said Lewis, who is beginning her third year as director.
She can relate genuinely to the approximately 100 Guarantee scholars currently on campus, because she walked a similar path.
Finances were tight in Lewis’ single-parent household when she was finishing Brunswick County Early College High School and hoping to attend UNCG. During a campus visit for prospective students, she learned of UNCG Guarantee and that the deadline to apply had been extended.
“My mother was like, ‘You need to apply tonight.’” recalled Lewis. “I jumped on it and applied and actually found out [acceptance] snooping through student accounts. I saw it on my account before I actually heard from the office, so we celebrated early and when we got the official news we celebrated again.”
The baccalaureate experience, however, was shorter for Lewis than for the average college student. Because of her high school’s partnership with Brunswick County Community College, she had earned an associate’s degree by the time she finished high school — a member of the first graduating class — and had enough college credits to graduate UNCG in just three years. She received a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a bachelor of science degree in human development and family studies in 2013.
Lewis – who went on to earn a master’s degree in education from UNCG – said UNCG Guarantee gave her invaluable support and guidance as a first-generation college student who didn’t know what to expect.
“It was very helpful with navigating the culture of academia and the campus,” she said.
Somewhere along the way, Lewis decided she wanted a career in education. By her senior year, she knew she wanted to work with the Guarantee program, where then-director Kristen Christman had been so personally supportive. In May 2013, she graduated on a Friday and began work the following Monday as an assistant to Christman.
The program boasts a graduation rate 20 percent higher than the school’s average, and about 50 percent of Guarantee scholars graduate within four years. The program’s structure supports students as they matriculate from year to year, holistically enhancing their development in areas ranging from academic success and relationship-building to leadership and civic engagement.
A three-day welcome gathering prior to the start of the first academic year helps scholars begin to create a community, get acclimated to campus life and receive guidance in areas such as study skills, understanding financial aid and budgeting, building relationships and relating to mentors.
Scholars are matched with a mentor who is a university or program alumnus or a faculty member or staff. Additionally, “cohort captains” from the ranks of upperclassmen are assigned to four or five incoming scholars each.
Career development is emphasized more in the second year, with workshops on topics ranging from résumé preparation and navigating job fairs to an annual etiquette dinner. The third year brings trainings relative to self-awareness and intercultural engagement through the lens of race while seniors have monthly programming around such issues as career-readiness, graduate education and financial literacy.
Scholars say the program has helped them in important ways.
“Without the Guarantee program, I probably would not have made it to college or persevered through thus far, so I am extremely thankful and grateful to be apart of the Guarantee family,” said Dontae Burnett, a sophomore majoring in history with a concentration in secondary education. He added that the program has motivated him to mentor other Guarantee scholars and to lead on campus, including becoming a resident assistant in his dorm.
“To be a part of the UNCG Guarantee program has been a special opportunity for me,” he added. “Considering that I was indecisive about if I wanted to attend UNCG, and also how I would transition to life as a college student, the UNCG Guarantee program has made this transition so much easier and more enjoyable. The Guarantee program has been actively making sure that I do my best in college academically while providing fun events for me to attend and develop my social life further.”
Jessica “Twitch” Twitchell, who graduated in 2016, credits the program for numerous opportunities she maximized, from developing a support network by working in three different offices on campus to studying abroad twice, graduating with three minors and double-majoring in sociology and international and global studies.
She immediately began to give back after graduating, serving three times as a program mentor to incoming first-year students and interning with the program to provide support and to restructure leadership development opportunities for scholars.
“To me, the UNCG Guarantee Program means family,” said Twitchell, who is earning a master’s in education with an emphasis on student affairs administration in higher education from UNCG. “The Guarantee Program also means opportunity. Students who may not even have the opportunity to attend college are able to come to UNCG and learn to thrive. Because of the vision and drive of Tyshea Lewis, scholars are encouraged to follow their passion and supported every step of the way.”
LaMont Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones