An adult learner whose educational journey has brought her to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall was one of six Tennessee students recently selected as recipients of the 2022 BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, funded by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation.
Zennia Nesmith entered UTC as a psychology major after landing the scholarship but ultimately wants to complete her master’s in clinical mental health.
“I’m definitely a non-traditional student,” Nesmith said. “I’m 47 years old and proud of it. I’ve done the educational process a little backward.”
The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awarded $10,000 Power of We Scholarships to six minority students pursuing degrees in health care for 2022. The Memphis chapter of the National Association of Health Services Executives chose the recipients.
“The Power of We Scholarship program is part of our overall effort to address health disparities minority groups face,” said Ron Harris, vice president of corporate workforce diversity at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “By helping increase minority representation in Tennessee’s health care workforce, we hope to improve health outcomes within our communities.”
The foundation has awarded $10,000 scholarships to outstanding minority students pursuing careers in health care every year since 2013, awarding a total of $345,000 to students.
After receiving her GED in 1998, Nesmith entered Chattanooga State Community College, but it wasn’t the right fit. So she joined the corporate world, working for 22 years—including 12 years at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee—before a severe shoulder injury forced her to retire in 2019.
The downtime while recovering, combined with her advocacy efforts for people with disabilities, led her back to college. She received an associate degree in psychology from Chattanooga State in May, graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Her advocacy efforts for people with disabilities directly result from an injury sustained by her daughter, Chyna Crockett.
“I have a beautiful 25-year-old daughter with a traumatic brain injury resulting from a car accident when she was four,” she said. “As her caregiver, I learned so much about the resources and work opportunities available for the disabled that I started a nonprofit, Empowered Connections, to help other caregivers of people with disabilities.”
After Crockett completed her time as a public-school student, no programs were available to help her transition into the workforce.
“So I did a certification to learn about customized employment for people with disabilities,” Nesmith said.
“I realized doing my nonprofit that I needed to know more, and that’s why I went into psychology. I realized that the only disability I knew about was traumatic brain injuries. I didn’t know about Down syndrome and autism. I went into psychology because I wanted to learn more about the brain.”
Nesmith said her daughter volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House and the Chambliss Center for Children, “and we’re integrating her into employment but in a different way.”
“I’m transparent with my story because I want people to understand that they’re not alone,” she said. “There’s probably a mom out there with a child with a disability who thinks there’s nothing she can do. I always tell my story so that I can inspire the next person to go and to do the hard stuff.”
Nesmith said connecting other caregivers with resources to improve the lives of their loved ones is rewarding.
“I especially like assisting families with the development of individualized educational plans for children in exceptional education with the public-school systems,” she explained. “When they graduate, I help them find competitive employment. The impact these things have is truly life changing.”
With the start of the fall semester, Nesmith now joins her husband, Allen, as non-traditional students at UTC.
Allen Nesmith is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics and is on pace to graduate in spring 2023.
“We originally planned to delay the rest of my education until he finishes for financial reasons,” she said, “but the Power of We Scholarship changed all that.
“I am so grateful to BlueCross. First, I learned so much about teamwork and leadership while I worked there. And now, this scholarship will allow me to pursue the rest of my undergraduate degree.”
The Power of We honor is the latest in a year full of recognition for Nesmith. In February, she was one of eight students nationwide selected as a 2022 DREAM Scholar by Achieving the Dream.
During the College System of Tennessee’s fourth annual Statewide Outstanding Achievement Awards ceremony held on March 30 in Nashville, Nesmith was named the Tennessee Community College Student of the Year.
In July, Nesmith was honored by the Tennessee General Assembly with House Joint Resolution 1128. Written by Rep. Greg Vital, who represents the 29th District in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the resolution commends her “unflagging commitment to academic excellence, exceptional resilience and immeasurable contributions both as a student leader and within the community, and as someone who actively demonstrates her passion for advocacy, service and justice.”
“It’s coming at me so fast, but it was years of hard work to even get to this place,” Nesmith said.