Juan Mancilla is full of promise. And so is his future, thanks to a promise he made five years ago.
Mancilla will tell you it hasn’t always been easy during the past year. But he knows worthwhile things rarely are.
“Many students struggle with the financial aspects of college,” said Mancilla, a college freshman and pre-nursing major who’s part of Tyler Junior College’s (TJC) Promise Program in East Texas. “This took away such a burden for me. I’m able to focus on my studies.”
In 2016, Mancilla was one of hundreds of Tyler-area high school freshmen who committed to achieving a minimum grade point average, volunteering with nonprofits like the East Texas Food Bank and maintaining good attendance and discipline.
The reward? Two years of paid college tuition, leading to the promise of greater earning power and a brighter future.
“Signing up for the Promise Program just made sense for me,” said Mancilla. “TJC gives you great resources for what it takes to be successful and well-rounded. If anyone is thinking about TJC Promise, they definitely should do it.”
Regions Bank in Tyler and the Regions Foundation, a nonprofit initiative of the bank, both support the TJC Promise Program, making it possible for Mancilla and other high-performing students to achieve their academic goals. In 2019, Regions Bank donated $15,000 to the program. Last year, the Regions Foundation elevated that commitment by contributing $50,000 for student scholarships – for today and in the future. Some scholarship recipients are underserved students; all are grateful for the support.
“The TJC Promise Program broadens horizons for students and encourages them to dream higher. It removes barriers, and provides support to pursue those dreams,” said Marta Self, executive director of the Regions Foundation. “Beyond its financial assistance, students receive the benefit of working with program leaders to create their roadmap for academic and long-term success.”Augusta Robinson is a success coach who works alongside students like Mancilla. When the first class of TJC Promise students signed their pledges in 2016, Robinson and other team members never could have imagined what the 2020 academic year would resemble.
“We’re still finding out what our new normal is,” said Robinson. “The pandemic has definitely affected us. After the 2020 spring break, we didn’t return to campus and worked remotely for two months. We had to adjust in a lot of ways. Gathering 300 students in an auditorium wasn’t a possibility.”
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Mancilla and Robinson have both found that way.
“During the fall semester, I decided to take all of my classes online,” said Mancilla. “But certain classes like medical labs are challenging because they need to happen in person. We really can’t do dissecting online. I like to go to class, I like listening to the lecture and taking notes. For the spring semester, I’ve been doing online and on campus learning with masks and social distancing. The protocols make me feel better about being around people.”
Robinson and team have also shown flexibility in connecting with current students and reaching future ones.
“This first class of TJC Promise Scholars has offered so many different discoveries,” said Robinson. “We’ve really tried to use technology to our advantage. It’s changed the way the College does everything, from advising to campus tours. It’s also encouraged us to develop a more holistic approach in how we serve the students. Our students have adapted very well. If they aren’t giving up, we can’t either.”
This dedicated, personalized approach doesn’t surprise Tara Odell as a Tyler Junior College graduate.
“TJC is part of the fabric of the Tyler community,” said Odell, market executive for Regions Bank in Tyler. “The family-like atmosphere on campus is a reflection of how supportive the community is of TJC. It’s a place where everyone is focused on empowering students to succeed. The Promise Program is closing the achievement gap for students to pursue their higher education. The donations Regions Bank and the Regions Foundation have made to support this program are planting seeds to grow talent who will likely remain in our community.”
Robinson agrees as he observes students like Mancilla develop and gain confidence.
“This is the ultimate investment that businesses can make in the Tyler community,” he said. “Students like Juan grew up here; they have roots here. This offers him an opportunity to further himself at a local college. With our area being a medical hub for the region, Juan may one day serve someone involved with making the decision to fund our program. It’s an investment supporting students for years to come.”
But for today, Mancilla is focused on classes and learning. What’s he learned about himself during the past year?
“I don’t like to be confined for too long,” said Mancilla. “It’s also taught me patience overall and with my schoolwork to do it right.”
He also credits the time he spent sorting canned and dry goods to fulfill his community commitment with offering him a valuable gift.
“It gave me perspective,” said Mancilla. “I saw how much people out there need the help.”
What are the biggest takeaways Robinson and team have had during these unusual times?
“We surveyed the students and discovered their greatest concerns are what they would typically be and what any other college student would have,” he said. “Things like meeting new people and the balance between school and work. These learnings helped us to reframe and mirror what would take place in a typical year. We’re focused on ensuring our students are ready for the next step. That they’re excited and wanting this experience, that they’re focused on career goals and future aspirations.”
Exactly how and where it all began five years ago for Juan Mancilla and hundreds more students.
Because a promise made means a promise kept – on both sides.