Education Makes a Difference

Education Makes a Difference

Debbie Ingram was installed as president of the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association June 22, 2007. Ingram, of Ooltewah, Tennessee, is director of clinical education for physical therapy doctoral students at UT Chattanooga. She earned her master’s degree at UTC and her doctorate at UT Knoxville. She addressed the alumni association Board of Governors upon taking office.

It is an honor and privilege to serve with you, the greatest of Volunteers. Thank you for all you do for the University of Tennessee, our 45,000 students, faculty, staff, administration, and 300,000 alumni.

For the past several years, I have served as the federal affairs liaison for the education section of the American Physical Therapy Association. To prepare me for this role, I took a course on effective lobbying strategies for Congress. I will use these strategies during this address this evening. Step 1: Share a story to appeal to their hearts. Step 2: Follow with the facts to appeal to their intellect. Step 3: Make a request–ask them to do something.

To begin, I want to share a true Tennessee story.

Her name was Minnie Morgan. Growing up in rural Polk County, deep in the hills of Tennessee, Minnie attended school in a one-room schoolhouse in Springtown. At the completion of the eighth grade, because there was no high school, Minnie just stayed and helped the teacher with the children. Married at a young age, Minnie and her husband, Pearl, became the proud parents of nine children. It was one of the younger children that forever changed this family. For you see, the infant daughter became gravely ill and there was not enough money to provide the necessary health care. The baby girl died before her first birthday. Tragedy stuck multiple times. Minnie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, one of the most crippling of disorders. Abandoned by her husband, Minnie was then left to raise her children alone. She was a woman of great faith and belief that a brighter future could occur for her children through education.

The miracle of this story is that all of Minnie’s children graduated from Bradley High School. Seven of the children attended college, with six earning at least bachelor’s degrees. Five earned graduate degrees, with two earning doctorates. Her children dedicated their lives to education. They became teachers, college professors, school librarians, and elementary school principals.

Children who grow up in families with educated parents are more likely to graduate from college. The majority of Minnie’s adult grandchildren have earned college degrees, with five of these being doctorates. I know this story well because when I was four years old, my grandmother, Minnie Morgan Bryson moved in with my family. I shared a bedroom with her for several years. I promised my grandmother that I would grow up and become a physical therapist so that I could help people just like her. It is because of my education that I was able to fulfill my passion of helping people with disabilities.

The state of Tennessee faces many educational challenges. Only 6 out of 10 ninth graders finish high school; 35 percent matriculate to college; 15 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. We rank 47th in the nation for percent of adults with college degrees-21 percent (5 percent below the national average). The impact is recognized in economic and healthcare challenges. The U.S. Census Bureau Report indicates people in Tennessee with less than a high school education earn an average of $10,000; high school graduates earn $18,000; and, college graduates earn $32,000. People with limited incomes often lack health insurance and delay access until facing a health crisis.

I believe alumni can help improve student access and success in college. First, I want you to share your stories about how education changed your lives and the lives of your families. Tennessee has a great reputation for storytelling dating back to the days of Davy Crockett, one of the greatest volunteers. A recent Alumnus magazine edition featured the story of one of our Board of Governors members–Eddie Roe, a first generation college student. It was Eddie’s lifelong dream to become a pharmacist. When Eddie and Dot didn’t have the financial resources for him to remain in the UT pharmacy program, the dean insisted Eddie return to class and remember the university after he graduated. After establishing a pharmacy in Gray, Tennessee, Eddie and Dot endowed a scholarship for pharmacy students with financial need. Our Alumnus magazine will be featuring more of these stories in the editions this year. Please send your stories.

I want to also ask you to volunteer to work with our youth. As college graduates, we are the minority. Many of today’s children are growing up without positive role models. We can make a difference in their lives. As a teenager, my only knowledge of a physical therapist was through a soap opera I watched with my grandmother. No one in my family worked in healthcare. Thus, I joined a high school club called TAPS-the Teenage Program for the March of Dimes. Our advisor was a young UT alumnus and the social worker at our local hospital. She organized volunteer experiences for me to observe physical therapists. Since 1972–yes, that has been 35 years–she has been a mentor to me. She is Terry Denniston, the assistant to the chancellor and former director of alumni for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. You never know–you may be helping the future president of the UTNAA!!!

I hope you will choose to visit your local high schools and volunteer to help with career fairs, speak to classes, or serve as an advisor to clubs and organizations. This spring, Chancellor Brown and a group of UTC alumni and faculty visited and spoke to the students of Bradley High School. It was amazing to see a large group of students come forward to ask for advice about their dreams of a college education. We plan to visit more high schools this year.

Lastly, I think as alumni leaders we also need to financially support the university. The UTNAA provides scholarships to attract outstanding students. Or, you can designate your contributions for a particular cause. For example, when we make our annual contribution, we give to a scholarship fund for physical therapy students with financial need. My students share concerns of rising loan debt of up to $50,000 just for their graduate school education.

David and I are looking forward to visiting with you in your local communities this year. His story is also amazing. As the ninth of ten children, David was the first and only one in his family to graduate from college. He attributes his success as a business owner to the entrepreneurial skills mastered through his business education at the University of Tennessee.

In closing, some lines from my favorite Tennessee entertainer, Kenny Chesney:

That’s where I come from
Where I’ll be when it’s said and done
I’m proud as anyone
I’m an old Tennessean.

Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to serve.