Interview with the John M. Belk Endowment’s Kristy Teskey

One year ago, at the White House, President Obama and the First Lady celebrated the John M. Belk Endowment’s announcement that it would provide $10 million to the College Advising Corps to increase access to higher education for rural, low-income students in North Carolina. The Endowment’s Executive Director Kristy Teskey reflects on the first year of the partnership and the Endowment’s goals in the Q&A below.

Q: The Endowment’s website says its goal is to empower today’s workforce by creating pathways to and through post-secondary education for underrepresented students. Why was this topic so important to the late Mr. Belk, and what inspired the creation of the Endowment?
John Belk truly cared about people having the opportunity to reach their full potential, and he wholeheartedly believed that education was the driver that moves people toward productive and fulfilling lives. John was inspired by his upbringing, strong family values and formative educational experiences – which prepared him for a lifetime of leadership, as mayor of Charlotte, CEO of Belk department stores and supporter of many charitable endeavors. He also recognized the value of education was not only a means to personal fulfillment but also to community vitality. That’s why he created the Endowment 20 years ago. It began as a way to fund the John Montgomery Belk Scholars program at Davidson College, which is still going strong today. But the Endowment also has broadened its scope to carry on John’s vision and help create opportunities for people who have traditionally been left behind, so they too can receive an education that will lead to good, family-sustaining jobs – and at the same time strengthen our workforce and keep North Carolina competitive.

Q: Why is Endowment partnering with College Advising Corps?
We are finding that too many talented young people, particularly in rural North Carolina, do not apply to college because they lack the understanding and financial resources to access higher education – which can positively change the trajectory of their lives. College Advising Corps is an innovative program aligned with the Endowment’s vision to help students who are underrepresented in college and other higher educational programs, whether they are rural students, minorities, veterans or first-generation college students. We see these college advisers as incredible assets, whose commitment and drive will help us achieve our goal of increasing access to and completion of higher education in North Carolina.

Q: Last year, the White House highlighted the Endowment’s $10 million gift over three years to College Advising Corps. What are your goals for these three years?
We were honored to stand beside the College Advising Corps when the First Lady announced her goal of helping more students prepare for and graduate from college.  Our rural communities have been hard hit economically over the last 20 years, and opportunities to find good jobs right out of high school really don’t exist anymore. Our ultimate goal with this investment is to see an increase in the number of students from rural North Carolina high schools who gain access to college and other postsecondary education programs that meet their individual needs. This program can make a difference one student at a time, by opening doors of opportunity for individuals and by creating a stronger talent base for our new and evolving industries across our state. To accomplish this, our funding will place Corps advisers who recently graduated from Davidson College, Duke University, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill into as many as 60 rural high schools, so they can help students navigate complex college admissions and financial aid processes and link them with study programs best suited to their interests and skill sets.

Q: Why are rural schools of such importance to the Endowment?
North Carolina has one of the highest concentrations of rural students in the nation. Forty percent of these students are from underserved populations, and more than one third live in poverty. Research shows rural students lag their urban peers in college enrollment and persistence, which leaves the workforces in these communities less competitive for new jobs and investment. That’s why the Endowment invests in programs such as College Advising Corps – to give more talented and deserving students the opportunity to succeed and at the same time strengthen their communities.

Q: What are your initial reflections of College Advising Corps’ North Carolina expansion?
Our grant more than doubled the size of the Corps working in North Carolina, which we believe will help bring significant change for students in rural areas. We are delighted to support this expansion and are already seeing results, thanks to the enthusiastic work of the Corps and participating universities and high schools.  The Endowment invests in initiatives such as this partly because they can be scaled up and serve as models for other states.

Q: What advice would you give our program directors and our advisers who are working in underserved schools in North Carolina and around the country?
Be bold. Be passionate about this important work. Be a team player.  You are changing culture and creating a legacy by showing students who traditionally have been left behind that they can get past barriers and improve their lives by preparing for higher education during high school years. You are a key that can unlock opportunities to help students reach their dreams, and as a result, strengthen their communities.