For University of Tennessee at Chattanooga adult learner Zennia Nesmith, having severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is tantamount to tracking one snowflake during a blizzard. Menopause whips the storm more.
“Your memory suffers,” said Nesmith, 48, a Chattanooga native. “I can’t pay attention and can’t remember things. I have so many Post-it Notes scattered around the house.”
UTC has been a godsend in several ways, she said. Nesmith has taken advantage of UTC’s Disability Resource Center and uses two software programs to keep pace in the classroom: Kurzweil 3000, an assistive technology tool that helps students with learning disabilities, and Glean, which lets students record, play back and add notes at their own speed.
Nesmith was supposed to graduate from Tyner High School in 1993 but dropped out after attempting suicide. She earned a general education development diploma in 1998, briefly entered community college and then joined the corporate world. She worked in customer service at Unum in downtown Chattanooga from 1999 to 2009 and in customer service and as a billing analyst at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee from 2009 to 2021.
She enrolled at Chattanooga State Community College in 2020 after being inspired by her daughter’s disability and the lack of job-readiness programs for those like her. Daughter Chyna Crockett, 26, suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4 as the result of an auto accident near the Chattanooga airport, near where the family still lives.
“Because of the severity of her disability, there was no program. She wasn’t eligible for competitive employment. I didn’t want her to just sit at home and not do anything so I encouraged her to volunteer at organizations.”
Those organizations included the local zoo, Ronald McDonald House and Chambliss Center for Children, which places foster children and, through its Transitional Living Program, provides stable housing and case management for youth who have aged out of foster care at 18. Chyna volunteered in the Chambliss nursery.
“My daughter has the gift of presence,” Nesmith said, “the gift of comforting, and never meets a stranger.”
Chyna graduated from Central High School in 2019. After helping her daughter, Nesmith was contacted by several of her daughter’s disabled classmates and began advocating for them for job placement. Nesmith’s work at the Tennessee Reconnect program helped her return adults to higher education or to find jobs. She also worked with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens, Tennessee, to better meet the occupational and training needs of citizens within a 50-mile radius.
Just recently, Nesmith joined TCAT—Athens as a part-time career coach.
Because of her daughter’s injury, Nesmith also founded a nonprofit organization called Empowered Connections along with Siskin Hospital to support other families who have children with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Nesmith graduated from Chattanooga State in May 2022 with a 4.0 grade-point average and was president of the psychology and social justice clubs. She is a junior psychology major at UTC and hopes to enter the master’s program after graduating in 2024.
Chattanooga State gave Nesmith its 2022 President’s Award, and local Tennessee Rep. Greg Vital got a resolution passed in her honor. House Joint Resolution 1128 commends Nesmith for being the 2022 Tennessee Community College Student of the Year and following “a path to higher education that has been full of twists, turns and bumps along the way, which path has strengthened her resolve and instilled a deep responsibility to pave the way for others.”
The resolution also states Nesmith was raised by her grandmother after her parents became addicted to drugs, adding she “personifies the spirit of our Tennessee community colleges and the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs; she has overcome many obstacles to make her dreams of earning a college degree a reality and has simultaneously excelled academically.”
Nesmith credits UTC with making a difficult transition tenable for her.
“Because I’m an adult learner with severe ADHD and a first-generation college student, I didn’t understand the language of university. It’s a hard transition from community college,” she said. “UTC has pushed me. The accommodations there are second to none. They’ve helped me to concentrate, and I can thrive in the Disability Resource Center.”
To retain lectures and lessons, Nesmith has to read and hear them at the same time—hence the value of the software programs.
“Most professors don’t have microphones,” she said in explaining why she tries to sit at the front of classrooms. “It’s easier for software to catch the lectures. Without those two [Kurzweil and Glean], I wouldn’t able to retain anything. I also can go back and listen to lectures. I’m a middle-age woman going through menopause, so my brain isn’t what it was. These classes get more in depth and more intense than those at a community college.”
Nesmith isn’t the only one in her immediate family who is benefiting from UTC’s adult-learner program. Husband Allen Nesmith, 54, will graduate in May with a degree in mechatronics. He also works as an automation technician at Sanofi, formerly Chattem, and is about to start his third internship at TVA, where he hopes to land after graduating with his UTC degree.
Mechatronics combines mechanical and electrical engineering with computer science and robotics.
UTC’s adult-learner program “has opened a lot of doors and opportunities,” said Allen Nesmith, a 2020 graduate of Chattanooga State and a native of Johnsonville, South Carolina. “It’s exposed me to theory—the reasoning as to why you do it this or that way. The automation part of it means speed and takes the human factor out of dangerous elements of the job.”
Like other universities, UTC strives to recruit adult learners. Zennia was able to attend UTC through the 2022 BlueCross Power of We Scholarship funded by the Chattanooga-based insurer’s foundation.
“I’m proud of her and love her so much,” daughter Chyna said.