JCHS Niswonger Scholars Accomplishing Great Things
Jefferson County’s Niswonger Scholarship/Leadership Program alumni are spread from Dallas to Boston and from Chicago back to Jefferson County. They are leading change through careers in business, education and the legal profession. Two have completed their obligations to reinvest in the region that produced them.
Beginning with Nashville attorney, Trey Reliford, who graduated in 2006, JCHS produced four “Niswongers” in as many years, the first school in the 17-district region to do so, though the feat has been matched since. (Current senior John Henry Turner will become Jefferson County’s sixth beneficiary of the prestigious award when he graduates in May.)
Steeped in what is deemed its “Learn, Earn, Return” philosophy, the innovative empowerment model was created through a foundation established in 2001 by Greeneville businessman Scott Niswonger, founder of Landair Transport, Inc. and chairman emeritus/founder of Forward Air Corporation.
Scholars are selected through a nomination process intended to identify the region’s top-drawer candidates and grant them opportunities to attend the college or university that will best prepare them for success in their field of study. Tuition costs are covered by the Foundation, as are travel and study abroad opportunities and a companion training/support program esteemed by alumni as equally vital.
Reliford used his award at The University of the South, graduating in history and political science in 2010. From there, he earned a Stanford law degree in 2015. He worked in New York, amassing experience in white collar and regulatory defense, securities, antitrust, employment and intellectual property law. He recently joined the Nashville law firm of Neal & Harwell, PLC.
While Niswonger scholars can place a monetary figure on the scholarship contribution, participants say the worth of the leadership component is incalculable. It blends educational excellence, community service and ethics while exposing students to important but often overlooked soft skills.
“Oh, it’s on a daily basis,” said Sean McCullough, a 2007 JCHS alumnus who studied marketing at the University of Notre Dame, when asked about the regularity with which Niswonger’s leadership lessons serve him.
“And it’s everything from simple things of etiquette and just making conversation with people to how I interact with clients daily,” praised the client innovation partner for Chicago’s Bluedog Design, where his firm works to bring innovative new products to market. “The lessons are constantly there; they have helped me become a better businessperson, a better person.”
Will Brummett works for Boston’s Brandeis University as a Service Initiatives program coordinator. The 2009 Jefferson County graduate fulfilled his four-year service agreement while working at Carson-Newman University’s Bonner Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement. He earned an M.A. in social entrepreneurship from C-N in 2017
He champions the Niswonger program across the board, noting particularly the world travel component that granted him “the privilege of knowing what it means to really miss and appreciate home.”
Beyond graduating from Elon University, summa cum laude in 2013 with a religious studies degree and numerous leadership opportunities, Brummett is grateful for a sense of expansion that transcends geography.
“I’ve traveled from the beaches of Nassau, Bahamas, to those of Normandy,
he notes with deep gratitude. “I’ve climbed mountains in East Tennessee, navigated busy streets in Manhattan and I’ve had the privilege to meet and dine with CEOs, basketball stars, elected officials – even the Governor of Tennessee.”
Like Brummett, Taylor Ashby Grindstaff brought her Niswonger-gifted expertise back to Jefferson County. She went to Clemson following her 2008 JCHS graduation, finished undergraduate work at ETSU and earned a master’s in counseling from Carson-Newman. She was a counselor in Greene County’s school system before returning home.
“(T)he one aspect that remains most salient in my memory is leadership,” she said. “I practiced public speaking, learned how to debate hot topics with other individuals who were equally as passionate about their opinions as I was, and engaged in service projects in local communities. (It’s) unlike typical scholarship programs that only focus efforts on academia. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had those experiences.”
Grindstaff remembers her first winter training session and a sense of intimidation she felt as she encountered upperclassmen at the conference. “Their intelligence, accomplishments and ease with which they carried themselves was inspiring.”
A conversation there encouraged her to look at study abroad and, within a couple of years, she was spending a semester in Queensland, Australia. “I knew that was something I wanted to experience…and I will forever be grateful for my time there.”
Since graduating in 2016 from Vanderbilt University, 2012 JCHS alumnus Trey Dodson has worked in Dallas for Deloitte business analyst specializing in human capital. He leads a team charged with helping Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Pepsi and others manage change, particularly as it pertains to the adoption of new technologies.
Like his fellow Niswongers, Dodson says ideas he learned in training session and through assigned readings have become tenets by which he operates. “It’s like wow I can’t believe I learned that and how helpful it is now. I can nail it down to two things, and they are pretty related, so maybe not two things but more like one and a half.
“What the Niswonger experience really taught me to do was to understand and empathize with folks – through the trips, the events, the workshops and the trainings, I think the Foundation taught us how to really examine individuals at their core to understand their beliefs, the passions, values, just what drives them.”
He said he learned to use those elements to work with others – both for the project teams he leads and for clients – as they move toward common goals. And they conditioned him for the second part of the lesson; that people often have similar dreams, hopes interests and needs no matter where they come from.
“Going into college I believed the sun rose and set from the hills of Dumplin Valley but, in those four years with the Foundation, I came to realize that the world is a lot bigger than the confines of East Tennessee.”
McCullough and Dodson can relate through their mutual intent to spend a few more years garnering as much experience as possible before coming home. Both men say they dream of establishing businesses here to sow back into the region from which they reaped so much.
“I want to be the very best that I can be before I come back,” Dodson said of his strategy. “I’ve been with Deloitte for almost two and a half years. I want to take that experience, traveling and serving clients around the nation, and get my MBA very shortly from a top program in the country…..Whatever knowledge I get there, on top of Vanderbilt and Deloitte and whatever else I can learn to bring it back to East Tennessee.”
As a brand strategist and marketer, the dots automatically connect for McCullough. Without the Niswonger Foundation he is sure he would not have been able to go to Notre Dame and therefore would not have gone to Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Though having “fallen in love with a Chicago girl” and started their family there, he says he has East Tennessee in his sights in the next few years.
He says his commitment is rooted in thankfulness. He remains grateful, and a little astonished, he chuckled, by the fact “the Foundation would, in effect, trust 18-year- olds with what amounts to a blank check and (let them) go across the country to learn something with the expectation, and even the trust, that they are going to bring it back.”
Brummett says he counts the fulfillment of his Niswonger commitment as the “single proudest accomplishment of my professional career thus far.” While he has therefore paid back his obligation, he is grateful for opportunities “to pay it forward” to the Foundation, which include serving on the Niswonger Selection Committee twice and helping lead several summer training conferences.
“Everything I earn should be earned with an ethic focused on giving back to invest in others and ultimately, the call for all of us is to return and invest in East Tennessee just like Scott has,” he said.
Grindstaff has a unique touchpoint with the future. She has seen two new Niswonger Scholars matriculate in the last five years, one at Chuckey-Doak High School and John Henry Turner this year. “It’s exciting to see these bright, capable students get the same opportunity I had. I can’t wait to see what they will choose to do with their lives.”
By: Mark Brown, Reporter
The Standard Banner
Jefferson County, Tennessee