By Rita Mitchell
Married at 16 with a baby to care for, Kim Inman of Parsons, Tennessee, says, “I can remember sitting alone and thinking, I am a statistic.” She had always done well in school, but now had other priorities. “I didn’t have a babysitter or the money to hire one.” She tried taking her child with her to attend high school classes, but that wasn’t permitted. “So I left – forever.”
The next day, she went to the GED (Graduate Equivalency Diploma) office and received her GED a month before her classmates graduated.
Several years later, that GED was the foundation for Inman to become a licensed practical nurse at 23; a registered nurse at 25; attend the University of Tennessee at Martin Parsons Center to earn a bachelor of science in nursing at 28; and then go on to receive a master of science in nursing-family nurse practitioner degree from the University of Memphis at 30. She is employed as a nurse practitioner and plans to begin her doctorate next spring. Inman and her husband, Waylon, now have two children.
Whitney Crider, of Lexington, says she was fortunate to attend college right after high school, beginning at a community college and then transferring to the UT Martin Parsons Center. But finances were an issue. “I was holding down a full-time job while attending night classes and doing online courses.” During that time, she was also married. She and her husband, Kevin, have three children.
Crider, who always knew she wanted to be a teacher, earned a bachelor of science in education and is a third grade teacher at Parsons Elementary School. She will start her master’s in education in spring 2011.
Inman and Crider are among the more than 165 UT Martin traditional and non-traditional students who have received a total of more than $518,000 in scholarships from the Ayers Foundation. Overall, more than $3.9 million has been awarded since 2000 to graduates of Riverside and Scotts Hill high schools.
Both women also took advantage of the convenience of the UT Martin Parsons Center, continuing to work full-time while they earned degrees.
James “Jim” Ayers, a native of Parsons, established the Ayers Foundation Scholarship Program in 1999, which provides up to $4,000 for four years to any Decatur County area student in need, who meets the entrance requirements and attends any Tennessee college or university, community college or state-operated technical school. The foundation also pays for counselors in each school to guide students as they plan their high school schedules to make sure they take the necessary courses to gain college admission. Ayers’ wife, Janet, is foundation president.
The foundation extends the program’s benefits by bringing college recruiters to Parsons and sponsors bus trips so that students can tour campuses. “All at once, it becomes a very desirable thing for them to do,” said Ayers, of attending college. “All the time we’re telling them ‘you’ve got to prepare yourself academically.’”
When the program was five or six years old, it began to speak for itself. The first few years, “it was just a concept that sounded pretty good, but didn’t seem real.” Then, he said, students began to see their friends and relatives, who had Ayers Foundation Scholarships, graduate from college and begin careers.
“Through the years, I have realized how fortunate I was growing up having parents that had the appreciation … for what a formal education would do for me.”
The UT Martin Parsons Center, which opened in 2009, is being funded with $1 million from the Ayers Foundation. That spark led to more than a million dollars from private citizens and another million from the City of Parsons and Decatur County to support the center. Pointing to the scholarship program and center as focal points, Ayers says, “I think over the last 10 years, it probably has made people kind of realize if we invest in the community that great things will happen.”
“The scholarship had a huge and vital impact on me,” says Inman. “I had a lot of statistics stacked against me. I owe them a huge thank you.
“One of the best aspects about having the bachelor’s degree is that it was my ticket to becoming a family nurse practitioner, and the other is my husband and children’s faces on commencement day. They were the proudest three people in the gymnasium; I’m certain of it.”
Crider agrees. “Having the UT Martin campus available (in Parsons) along with Mr. Ayers being so generous with his scholarship program, helped me tremendously. The ability to enter the workforce with my degree has enabled me to better provide for my family. My degree is something I will always be thankful for.”
Probably the success story most often related by Ayers is that of Jason Rushing of Parsons. Rushing, a 2000 high school graduate, earned a bachelor’s degree at UT Martin and came full circle when he was named UT Martin Parsons Center director in 2006. He also holds an MBA from Union University.
“Because of the scholarship, I was able to take part in a variety of campus organizations and leadership opportunities. I have employed many of the valuable lessons learned then in my career,” Rushing says.
Rushing’s unique situation gives him an interesting perspective about the UT Martin Parsons Center, as well as the scholarship program. “The Parsons Center fits UT Martin’s mission of presenting educational opportunities to rural West Tennessee and is also a point of pride for Parsons and Decatur County,” he says.
Ayers says he spends “zero” time thinking about his legacy or what people think about the foundation. “We just want to get the system down and get it right where it will … maximize the amount of formal education” for the students who graduate from the local high schools. For Ayers, the next goal is to get it endowed “so it will go on forever.”
Ayers is honorary co-chair of the UT Martin campaign, current member of the UT Foundation Board and the UT Martin Campaign Steering Committee, and a former member of the UT Development Council. His gifts to The Campaign for Tennessee largely support the UT Martin Parsons Center and the UT Martin Ayers Scholars.