How a state program for high school students has been changing lives since 1985
By Skylar Baker-Jordan
As the assistant commissioner for community and rural development at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Brooxie Carlton often travels to small towns across the state. Because of a decision she made as a teenager, she has connections to some of those towns even though she grew up on the opposite end of the state.
“There are places that I visit today for my job working in rural development that I remember visiting as a teenager," Carlton said. “I think a lot of my love for Tennessee, especially East Tennessee, was because of the time I spent in Governor’s School and the places I got to visit and experience there.”
Created by the state Legislature and then-Gov. Lamar Alexander in 1984, the Governor’s Schools exist “to serve the needs of the top high school students in the state.” The first Governor’s Schools opened the following year, in 1985.
Housed at East Tennessee State University, The Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage (GSSETH) is “a four-week program for Tennessee rising high school juniors and seniors that explores the cultural and natural history” of the Volunteer State, said Dr. Rebecca Adkins Fletcher, an associate professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU and the director of the GSSETH, one of 11 such schools across the state.
Students at the ETSU Governor’s School take a class in Tennessee history, earning three hours of college credit in the process. “Because the program simulates the academic college experience, students also gain skills in research and writing, time management, and teamwork,” Fletcher said.
Carlton found this simulation of the college experience challenging yet crucial to her future success in higher education. “I remember working on a paper for Governor’s School,” she said. “I had always gotten great grades. I had always been top of my class. Yet the paper came back with more red marks than I had ever seen. It was just eye-opening to realize that I would have to step it up and put more effort into the work that I was doing when I got to college. It helped to have that realization a year before I went to college rather than my first semester of college.”
While the prospect of writing a college paper and taking a college class may be daunting to high school students, GSSETH is not all work. Students are encouraged to experiment and explore, experiencing an academic environment unlike any they’ve likely been in before. “Something really cool was being able to see what it was like to have experiential learning,” said Ellie Ledbetter, an 18-year-old sustainability and conservation student at the University of Tennessee and a GSSETH alumnae. She said that “getting to go to the public health campus and see impacts of our choices and what we can do to improve environmental health and public health” was very rewarding.
There are fun activities, too. “An amazing experience was getting to go on hikes on Buffalo and Roan mountains, which quickly became some of my favorite places,” Ledbetter said. She also enjoyed reading the poetry of Jesse Graves, ETSU’s poet-in-residence, while “in the environments he writes of.”
Getting out into the great outdoors and experiencing the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains was a high point of Carlton’s experience, too. “We went to see all kinds of cool places in East Tennessee that I had never visited before,” she said. “It was just a really good opportunity for a girl from a small town to get out of town and to have some new experiences.”
That is a common sentiment, according to Fletcher. “Students often describe GSSETH as life-changing,” she said. “Not only do they see their home state from a fresh perspective, but they realize how Tennessee history is foundational to many aspects of their lives.” Some students even find their future career path, she said, “from introductions made in history, public health, natural and environmental science, paleontology, and archival and museum curation” — areas that students at GSSETH get to explore in a hands-on, immersive way that many other programs for high school students simply cannot match.
Ledbetter was one of those students whose lives were changed by GSSETH. “I learned that I valued experiential learning, smaller cohorts, and taking breaks to enjoy your free time and leisure activities such as hikes and traveling,” she said. “It’s influenced my decisions when coming to college, because it made me more inclined to apply to honors colleges, smaller programs, and ultimately led me to my major, sustainability.”
While this is truly special on its own, Fletcher notes that there are other, more immediate benefits to attending Governor’s School. “Students make long-term friendships and gain a better idea of what they can expect in their first semester away at college,” she said.
Ledbetter agrees. “My favorite thing about Governor’s School is the people,” she said. “These are friends I will have for the rest of my life, and they helped me realize how enjoyable it is to learn about something with people who value it just as much as myself.”
Though it has been longer since Carlton attended, she too cherishes the friendships she made at GSSETH — some of whom she is still in touch with. “It was really great to meet other students from across the state,” she said. “I made some really good friends.” She said it also offered “a chance to be in a college setting and to see how college courses were different from what I was used to at a rural school in West Tennessee.”
Getting out of her bubble and experiencing a new part of the state seven hours from her home helped Carlton to be more independent and exposed her to folks from different backgrounds and different areas of Tennessee. “Putting together students from different parts of Tennessee — from the big cities, from the small towns, from big schools and small schools and people who have just grown up in the mountains versus on the river — I think it was a really good experience to get to meet and learn from those folks,” she said.
That is exactly the kind of experiential learning GSSETH encourages, according to Fletcher. “We prioritize hands-on learning,” she said. “Students participate in intensive field experiences.”
These include paleontology experiences at the Gray Fossil Site, a pioneer experience at ETSU’s outdoor research and laboratory facility, and an environmental and ecology experience in state parks. “Much of our time is spent out of the classroom,” Fletcher said.
Leaving the classroom and getting to experience all of Tennessee's wonders with peers from across the state is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one Ledbetter hopes students will take advantage of. When asked what she would say to anyone unsure of whether Governor’s School might be for them, she said, “do it, do it, do it!”
“Even if you are unsure, there is absolutely no reason to not just go for it,” Ledbetter said. “You’re bound to find lots of people who have similar values but have a lot of different perspectives that will help you grow as a student and person.”
Tennessee students who want to be a part of Tennessee Governor’s School can visit Governor's Schools (tn.gov) for information. Student applications to the program must include nomination by a school counselor, recommendation letters from a humanities teacher and a science teacher, submission of grades, and an essay describing their interest and how they would apply to their college and career interests lessons from the program. Information about GSSETH is available at ETSU Governor's School Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage, and applications for GSSETH will be accepted through Jan. 17, 2023.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a graduate student at ETSU in Appalachian Studies, and a staff member of Appalachian Places. He is a contributing editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several major news magazines.