The first time Zennia Nesmith took classes at Chattanooga State Community College, she earned a perfect slate of five Fs.
More than two decades later, Nesmith buried her failing grades in the deep soil of the past when she graduated from the school with a flawless 4.0 GPA.
“Those Fs are still there,” she laughs, “but they’re not there.”
Nesmith’s academic success surprised her. But it was not the only awakening she experienced when she returned to college at the age of 45. In addition to becoming an A student, she discovered she had a flair for leadership.
This would have seemed an unlikely outcome at the onset of Nesmith’s college reboot. At first, the age difference between her and the younger students in her classes intimidated her, so she sat in the back rows, trying to be invisible. But as she poured blood, sweat and tears into her coursework, her professors noticed her and pulled her forward.
“I was going to earn my associate degree and get out. I was not going to become involved,” Nesmith recalls. “And then one of my professors asked me to become president of the psychology club.”
As Nesmith settled into the role, another professor asked her to serve as the president of Chattanooga State’s Social Justice Club. And just like that, the quiet woman in the rear of the room was a student leader.
Meanwhile, Nesmith was excelling academically in ways she’d never imagined she could.
“I kept earning As,” she says, sounding like she still can’t believe it. “I didn’t know I was smart until I got my first A and my professor said, ‘It’s your job to keep it.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to keep this A and those Fs won’t count anymore.’”
Nesmith says it’s a cliche to say she performed better as a nontraditional student because she was older and wiser. But in-between her two stretches in college she identified what she calls her greater purpose – and it made a difference.
“When I was young, I went to school because my grandmother told me to do something with my life,” Nesmith remembers. “But when I came back, I wanted to be there. And I discovered I loved learning and being a part of things.”
Nesmith’s lack of interest in education in 1998 was not a product of the ambivalence some youth feel toward the future but a painful childhood that had left her disillusioned and confused.
Nesmith does not hesitate, or even draw a preparatory breath, before delving into the jagged contours of her youth. “My story no longer belongs to me,” she notes, “but to the people it can elevate.”
The child of drug-addled parents, Nesmith lived with her maternal grandmother during her formative years. Although she says her grandmother loved and cared for her, a sense of rejection pricked her young heart.
Compounding this injury, Nesmith says she was molested twice – first at the age of 7 and again when she was 11.
Crushed beneath the weight of severe depression, Nesmith tried to kill herself as a teenager. Believing her only prospect for the future was not having one, she attempted suicide three times before landing in Cumberland Mental Hospital in 1993.
Reeling from the blinding blows of her childhood trauma, Nesmith spent the first half of her twenties crashing into the law, whether she was racking up speeding tickets, skipping court or driving on a revoked license.
Eventually, a girl named Chyna saved her. “When I had my baby, I had to pull myself together,” Nesmith says.
Determined to raise Chyna herself, Nesmith earned a GED and entered the workforce by the time her daughter was 2. Then, just as her life was gathering steam, a car accident severely injured her daughter and killed her grandmother.
During the collision, the 4-year-old Chyna suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly ended her life, as well, and irreparably altered it. In the years that followed, Nesmith did more than care for her daughter’s day-to-day needs, she also continually advocated for her to have the most active and productive life she could.
As Chyna approached high school graduation, frustrations stemming from the lack of a transitional program lit a fire in Nesmith. Eager to help other parents who were facing hurdles of their own, Nesmith formed a nonprofit called Empowered Connections that hosted monthly caregiver meetings at Siskin Children’s Institute.
“If a child was in a Hamilton County school and needed behavioral therapy but was having trouble getting it, their parents could come to a meeting and the answer would be in the room.”
Nesmith was eager to expand the work of her nonprofit but lacked the know-how. Believing college held the key, she began exploring her options, only to encounter what she believed was an impassable roadblock – the cost of higher education.
When Nesmith discovered the Tennessee Reconnect Grant – a scholarship that helps adults pay for college – the obstacle crumbled, allowing her to begin taking classes in the spring of 2020 at no cost.
“When I said yes to education, everything fell into place,” she recalls.
Availing herself of every opportunity, Nesmith joined Global Scholars, served as student government association president and made the dean’s list.
For her efforts, she received Chattanooga State’s 2022 President’s Award, Achieving the Dream named her one of its eight national Dream Scholars and the College System of Tennessee selected her as the state’s 2022 Community College Student of the Year.
Impressed, Rep. Greg Vital placed the cherry on top of the cake when he crafted a House Joint Resolution recognizing Nesmith’s achievements.
House Joint Resolution 1128 commends Nesmith for her “unflagging commitment to academic excellence, exceptional resilience and immeasurable contributions as a student leader,” reads a news release from Chattanooga State.
“It’s an honor to recognize Zennia, who’s overcome challenges with determination and a desire to improve her life and the lives of others,” Vital said during a ceremony at Chattanooga State in July.
The accolades are nice, Nesmith says, and they do have a place in her home. However, her heart is elsewhere. No longer pricked with the rejection she felt when her parents chose drugs over her, it’s filled with compassion and urgency as she contemplates the future of Empowered Connections.
Nesmith says she graduated from Chattanooga State better prepared to move her nonprofit forward. However, the lessons that equipped her didn’t come from a book or a lecture, she says, but from her interactions with her fellow students and her extracurricular activities.
She learned the value of listening, for example, while working on an assignment for a learning support class with a 17-year-old student.
“I always have something to say,” Nesmith chuckles. “I feel compelled to encourage and empower others. But I’ve never been a good listener. He changed that. As he shared his perspectives, he helped me to look beyond my traditions and ways of thinking.
“People don’t always need direction. If you’re advocating for someone, the most important thing you can do is listen to them and ask questions.”
As Nesmith begins the next phase of her education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she’s asking herself what’s next for Empowered Connections. Currently, her answer is, “I’m not sure.” She knows only that she wants to help others remove the barriers that are preventing them from achieving their goals.
“Yesterday, I helped a mother whose son is on the spectrum register at Chattanooga State because she wants to become a speech language pathologist,” she reports. “I also helped a visually impaired nontraditional student at UTC find resources that will help her advocate for herself and be more present in her community.”
From advocating for a mother during an Individualized Education Program meeting in Catoosa County to helping a middle-aged woman apply for a pardon with the executive clemency unit in Nashville, Nesmith is using her life experiences to serve people in her community in many different ways.
Perhaps the answer to her question lies therein.
“I don’t want to place any boundaries on what I do; I want to help as many people as I can. I sometimes wake up and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing things at this level.’ People told me I wasn’t equipped to succeed, but I kept stepping outside my comfort zone and doing things scared. Now my life is not my own; it’s meant to inspire the next person to do the next thing.”