Tennessee Governor's School for the Humanities is more than just an academic experience
Contact 1: Erin Chesnut
MARTIN, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee at Martin has hosted the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities for more than 30 years. Every June, some of the state’s best and brightest high school students make a pilgrimage to rural northwest Tennessee and leave with new ideas of who they are and what they can accomplish.
While there are now 12 governor’s schools hosted throughout the state each summer, and two at UT Martin, the Governor’s School for the Humanities, established in the early 1980s, is the original. High school juniors and seniors complete a rigorous application process, and only the best are selected to attend.
“It’s a great opportunity for these students, some of whom don’t get a chance to be challenged by their peers during the school year. But here they are surrounded by 50-70 students that are just as talented, smart or creative as they are. After the initial shock of that, these students are inspired by one another. That’s a special experience for them,” said Dr. Chris Brown, UT Martin professor of philosophy. Brown has taught courses for GSH since 2005 and recently completed his 12th year with the program.
Dr. Jerald Ogg, UT Martin provost and 15-year governor’s school director, says he and other GSH faculty return to the program each year for the “pure joy of teaching and interacting with these talented young women and men.”
“It’s not simply that the students are bright, though they clearly are; it’s the infectious curiosity they bring to the program,” he added. “These students have by definition chosen to spend half of their summer breaks on academic pursuits, and the energy and enthusiasm they bring to their classrooms, cafeteria conversations and residence hall discussions reminds all of us why we became educators in the first place.”
“I’ve had so many teachers that just stand in front of a board and spit information at you,” said Tia Glover, of Memphis, GSH class of 2016. “The teachers here fit (the information) into life in general and teach you about the world, so it’s less spitting information and more trying to open your eyes to the possibilities you can get from the world.”
Many of these students are not challenged by the course offerings at their local high schools and are able to discover new subjects while on the UT Martin campus. “I was challenged to step outside my comfort zone by being immersed in literature, philosophy, religion and psychology,” said Ashlee Dover, class of 2011. “Most importantly, I learned a new way to see and interact with the world.”
While GSH scholars take two college courses and earn six hours of transferrable credit during the program, it’s what they gain outside the classroom that can make the biggest difference.
“At first glance, the benefits of governor’s school are concrete – you go for the academic enrichment and earn some college credit in the process,” said Delaney Thomas, of Knoxville, class of 2010. “But it was only after my time at governor’s school that I began to process what the program taught me on a personal level – mainly that there is much more to the college and life experience than what you learn in the classroom.
“After five short weeks, I had a more realistic idea of what to expect from campus life, the more nuanced aspects of living at college that only come from the immersive atmosphere that governor’s school offers. I felt more confident and excited about my transition to college.”
Even high-achieving students can feel anxiety about the transition to higher education, often wondering if they will really be able to handle the pressures of academic life and the personal responsibilities of living on their own.
“GSH, on a practical level, prepares students for college in a way other programs cannot. It gives them a taste of being away from home and of the challenge of college courses. It teaches them about themselves, the way they react to high-stress situations and how they handle a new environment,” said Bridget Sellers, also of Knoxville, class of 2012. “Those things seem simple, but they are the very things that can destroy unprepared college freshmen.”
“That was half the reason I even wanted to come was to see if I could do the college experience,” said Ifueko Osarogiagbon. Emma Brick-Hezeau agreed, saying, “I’ve definitely never felt more confident about going to college or just succeeding in the next couple of years.” Both students are from Memphis and participated in the class of 2016.
The confidence gained during the GSH experience follows scholars through the rest of their lives and pushes them to chase dreams they may otherwise have let fall to the wayside. Sellers, who is scheduled to graduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2017, learned she could accomplish more than she ever thought possible.
“The most important thing I took away from the (GSH) experience was that I had to stop underestimating myself and settling for average. GSH showed me that I was not average, that I could accomplish amazing things if I put my mind to it,” she said. “I firmly believe that it was one of the biggest turning points in my life. …
“Since GSH, I have been driven to study abroad twice (once at Oxford University in England), reach for and obtain scholarships I never would have thought were within my grasp, and obtain a paid research internship from my university. I would never have been confident enough to do those things without the push that GSH gave me,” she explained.
Hosting GSH also has the added benefit of introducing these high-achieving students to UT Martin as a college option. Many of these students are courted by ivy league and top-10 institutions across the country, so the opportunity to recruit them into the UT System is significant.
“I’m particularly glad GSH was held at UT Martin,” said Katlyn Austin, a current UT Martin student and GSH class of 2012. “In high school, I had never heard of UTM or Martin, and so I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to stay a month here. I wouldn’t have applied here for college otherwise, and now I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.”
“I think the experience here has probably made me reconsider the whole out-of-state thing,” said Brick-Hezeau, who has been looking for colleges elsewhere. “I definitely want to see more of the world, but seeing the quality of teachers here and hearing from administrators here kind of makes me more confident in a state school.”
All governor’s schools are grant-funded, and administrators are constantly fearful of budget and program cuts. Current and former GSH scholars, however, know what future generations would be missing if the GSH program and those like it were to be defunded.
“I think a lot of us in school have felt like outcasts at one point or another because we genuinely want to be there, and others genuinely don’t want to be there,” said Ainsley Kelso, of Milan, class of 2016. “(Future students) would be missing the opportunity to be around people who want to learn as much as (they) do.”
“Whenever I’m in a leadership position with high school students, I make sure to discuss governor’s school with them,” said Dover, who graduated from Austin Peay State University in May of 2016. “My experience was so transformative and wonderful that I cannot let it be forgotten or thrown to the wayside. I need to pass on this hidden gem to those that still have a chance to experience it. I am a vehement supporter of the governor’s schools.”
With the rise of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools of all levels, Governor’s School for the Humanities takes on a new importance. “Schools are pushing more for STEM, and there are so many schools for things like technology and the sciences and math,” said Osarogiagbon. “Kids who aren’t into that, who are into writing … there is a group of people being left out. It feels like the arts and the humanities are being left behind.”
“I consider governor’s school to be the foundation of my academic achievements,” said Thomas, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 2016 with degrees in both French studies and health and exercise science. Thomas will attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the fall 2016 semester to receive a master’s degree in health care administration.
The Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities, and all programs like it, are valuable experiences for those students, counselors and faculty who take the time to make it their own. They help cultivate some of the best and brightest students in the state and encourage them to bring their talents home to make Tennessee a place of creativity, innovation and progress.
Perhaps Sellers said it best when she said, “GSH is a one-of-a-kind sort of place. It can drastically alter the lives of its scholars for the better, providing life-changing opportunities and important life lessons. Without it, Tennessee would lose the chance to support some of its brightest and best students.”
For more information on the 12 governor’s school programs available in Tennessee, visit the main program website. For more information on the Governor’s School for the Humanities program hosted at UT Martin, contact Dr. Jerald Ogg, university provost and program director, at 731-881-7010 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO ID: Pictured during Governor’s School for the Humanities 2016 at the University of Tennessee at Martin are high school students (front row, l-r) Salsabila Nurhidajat, of Chattanooga; Emma Brick-Hezeau, of Memphis; (back row) Mandy Pitz, of Oak Ridge; Aaron Stapleton, of Dyersburg; Katherine Fulcher, of Oak Ridge; and Abby Clark, of Sevierville. (Photo credit: Rae Fredericks, GSH counselor 2016)