It’s not often that a high school tells dozens of students at once that they’ve earned two years of free college, but that’s what happened when Rusk High School and Tyler Junior College announced the newest class of Rusk TJC Citizens Promise scholars this week.

Representatives from TJC and the Rusk community celebrated the 59 seniors who will make up the seventh class of the program. The Rusk TJC Citizens Promise scholarship was the first of its kind in Texas, allowing Rusk ISD students to earn free tuition, fees, books and other costs for eligible high school seniors in the top 50 percent of their graduating class. The scholarship is valued at $2,000 per semester and combines with other awards students might be eligible for after completing their FAFSA.

TJC Freshman John Wafford said he’s only been in classes for a few weeks, but he can already see the way the opportunity has started to transform his life.

With the stress of covering costs out of the way, Wafford immediately jumped head first into student organizations on campus, ready to make the most of his time at TJC. He hopes the ability to dedicate himself fully to academics is going to help him earn scholarships to Texas A&M University once he has graduated from TJC.

“For those planning to go to college, but unsure where to start, TJC is an amazing place to start,” he told his former classmates. “For those who have already laid out what they want to major in and what college they want to go to, but feel it might be too expensive, again TJC is a great start.”

Dozens of proud parents and family members were at Tuesday’s event to celebrate the students. With the program in its sixth year, many of those on hand were even older siblings who already had graduated from TJC.

The scholarship was modeled after a similar program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and made possible thanks to the generosity of the James I. Perkins Family Foundation, Citizens 1st Bank and the TJC Foundation.

The program’s fourth class graduated from TJC last May with 24 students receiving diplomas or transferring to a four-year university to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Last month the program was named a finalist for the Texas Higher Education Star Award for the significant gains in college-going rates in the community.

The percentage of Rusk students going to college increased from 36.2% to 57.8% in the first year of the program.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will announce the winner of the Star award in November at the Texas Higher Education Leadership Conference.

Since the launch of the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise program in 2014, TJC has created a similar Promise program for every school in its tax district. The first class of the TJC Promise program will begin college in fall 2020.

In the coming weeks, the Tyler Morning Telegraph will launch a multipart, multiplatform series about how the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise has changed the community. This series is produced with support from the Education Writers Association Fellowship program.

TWITTER: @TMT_Cory

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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