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Project GRAD Summer Program Helps to Develop Students’ College Ambitions

By Nichole Stevens

Dorian McCoy and Shawn Spurgeon agree that a number of success stories have resulted from the Project GRAD Summer Institute they co-direct.

McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Spurgeon is an Associate Professor of Counselor Education, currently serving as Coordinator of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.

Project Grad -Corey Hodge

Corey Hodge

“Corey Hodge is a phenomenal story. Corey was an RA and he has truly been a leader on campus,” said McCoy.

Hodge is now a pre-college mentor and UT graduate, and recently started a teaching career at Austin East High School.

“He is a real good example of utilizing the program, learning and giving back as a professional. Christie Banks is another. She works as an admissions counselor here at UT now. Another student did a BA at Purdue. One of our current pre-college mentors just had an interview with PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

The students McCoy and Spurgeon reflect on were all previous scholars of Project GRAD, a national program aimed at giving opportunities to historically underrepresented students in public schools. Through the program, which includes completion of the Summer Institute, students earn a scholarship of $4,000 to go towards high education, a possibility some of them thought impossible otherwise.

“I have been blessed to pursue education and pursue my dreams and goals of being a professor and with that comes great responsibility,” Spurgeon said.


Shawn Spurgeon

Spurgeon started as a Support Counselor and gradually became more integrated into Project GRAD’s Summer Institute. While students work towards completing the program while still in middle school and high school, it is important for them to get a feel for what college life is like. Spurgeon said many of them have trouble transitioning; being in the dorms for a week and away from home. As Spurgeon and countless pre-college mentors, many of whom were Project GRAD scholars themselves, help the students adjust to the idea of college life, Spurgeon himself transitioned into the role of co-director of the Summer Institute.

“We’re working with students who historically struggle with equity and access,” Spurgeon said. “I am helping students and families that might not necessarily see that the kids can go to college and that they can pursue education and they can pursue their dreams.”

“I share a lot of common identities, but I straddle some of those identities,” said McCoy.”

McCoy, although not considered a first-generation college graduate, reminisces about his upbringing and being raised by his mother and aunt, both of whom went to college, and also largely by his grandmother, who has less than a high school degree. So where the students in Project GRAD are coming from, he identifies with.


Dorian McCoy

“My family probably would not identify as middle class,” McCoy said. “I see this as an opportunity to give back. Someone helped me on my journey and hopefully what we’re doing will help them on their journey.”

The program focuses on guiding students from Austin East and Fulton high schools. Most of the students have an opportunity to engage with the program as early as elementary school and then really start to become active with it in middle and high school. To receive the $4,000 scholarship/stipend, students have to complete a residential program at PSCC. Second, they complete the residential institute at UT and then they have to graduate from their high school with a 2.5 GPA. About 13 schools in the Knoxville area are apart of the Project GRAD community.

“One thing we want to make sure is that we don’t come from a ‘deficient perspective.’ We come from a perspective that they are enhancing what they already have,” said McCoy.

Students in the Summer Institute take English, College Research Skills, Math and Personal Leadership Development. There are eight different tracks students can focus on for their areas of interest. Then later, when they conclude the Summer Institute, students go out and give back to their communities through volunteer work.

“Contrary to popular belief, these kids are listening and they are watching. They pay attention to it and see us as role models,” said Spurgeon.

“This is not an easy journey but I want them to know that if they can dream it, they can achieve it,” McCoy said.


Project GRAD Summer Institute was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.