Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Melissa Graham, pictured here during a September interview at BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee headquarters, spent 12 years in roles for Hamilton County Schools before becoming the student success manager for the BlueSky Tennessee Institute.

Students in the newly launched BlueSky Tennessee Institute will have demanding, accelerated schedules that will earn them four-year technology degrees in 27 months and a shot at careers with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

To help ensure they thrive, they'll also have Melissa Graham.

"I plan on helping them navigate life's stressors," says Graham, who was recently named student success manager for the program. "I'll walk alongside them every day. I plan to be that voice of reason. I want to build a culture like Student Support Services (at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) did for me."

Graham came to Chattanooga from Memphis in 2001 to attend UTC. As a first-generation college student, she counted on the resources of Student Support Services, where she eventually worked as a graduate student.

"I broke through some pretty tough schools [in Memphis]," Graham says. "I want students to know nothing can stop you. The path may be difficult, but nothing can stop you."

After graduate school at UTC, Graham spent 12 years working with Hamilton County Schools in counseling and student support roles, and eventually served as coordinator of community schools. She also worked with a nonprofit organization to mentor young mothers as they navigated parenting and high school.

Graham knows firsthand the challenges of balancing motherhood and classwork. She had just completed her bachelor's degree when she learned she was expecting her son. She had decided on graduate school, but the prospect was daunting.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to get it done," she says. "Having a child, working and doing graduate school."

Student Support Services offered her a job and, just as importantly, a sense of security, Graham says.

"They did so much for me to make Chattanooga home," she said. "That really impacted how I approach my work now. They saw the potential in me."

For the first 10 years of her life, Graham grew up in a military family. Her mother stayed home with the children while the family followed her father's career in the U.S. Marine Corps all over the map. But when Graham's parents divorced, her mother went home to Memphis with her three children, and Graham's life changed.

"This was inner city Memphis, so it was an adjustment," Graham says. "It took a few years to get used to it. I took advantage of every program."

For one of those programs, in eighth grade, she spent three weeks on a college campus.

"I knew from middle school I wanted to go to college," she said. "I knew I wanted a career. I knew I wanted to get a financial foundation for myself before depending on anyone else. That was my motivation."

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Melissa Graham

That drive is one of the things that will characterize Hamilton County students who will be drawn to the BlueSky Institute, she says.

"You have those students who definitely know what they want," Graham says. "This is a four-year program you complete in 27 months. The students will need that mindset."

The students will earn technology degrees from East Tennessee State University, attending during summers and through breaks, and work as paid interns paired with mentors at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

"These people will help them develop as a person and as a professional," Graham says.

Now the mother of three, Graham's commitment to mentoring students is something she shares with her husband, Keunta Graham.

Melissa Graham

* Age: 38

* Hometown: Memphis

* Role: Student success manager for the BlueSky Tennessee Institute

* Personal: Graham and her husband, Keunta, have three children who are 7 months, 3 years and 16 years old

A teacher and coach at his alma mater, Brainerd High School, Keunta Graham graduated from Middle Tennessee State University and was working in finance in Nashville when he felt called to come home and give back to his community, Melissa Graham says.

The two met when he became a teacher at Orchard Knob Middle School, where she was a counselor.

"It's important to us that we're making sure kids, especially minority kids, have professionals to look up to," she says.

About the BlueSky Tennessee Institute

A partnership between BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University, the program provides an accelarated technology degree program, along with mentoring and professional internship opportunities at BlueCross. Qualified graduates are considered for job opportunities at the company.