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2019 News Archive




The NISWONGER FOUNDATION, founded by Greeneville, Tennessee businessman and philanthropist Scott M. Niswonger, past its 100 scholar milestone with the selection of the Niswonger Scholars’ Class of 2024.  Currently, there are 19 Niswonger Scholars, with the newly selected students for 2020 bringing the total to 25.  The Foundation also has 77 Alumni of the program.

The Niswonger Foundation is leaving our mark in this region with the Niswonger Scholars. Niswonger Scholars are selected through a nomination process that seeks to identify the region’s best and brightest future leaders.  They are given the opportunity to attend the college or university that will best prepare them for success in their field of study, while participating in a four-year leadership program. Through an emphasis on leadership, business management, community service and ethical decision making, the Scholars are provided travel, training, internships, and personalized support to become model leaders and citizens of the world.  

Unique to any other scholarship in the United States, the goal of the Niswonger Scholars program is to identify and develop leaders for Northeast Tennessee. These students commit to returning, within seven years of completing their undergraduate degree program, to Northeast Tennessee to work in their chosen career one year for each year they receive the scholarship.  The plan is that by enabling these students to pursue their academic passion and by cultivating their leadership abilities, they will be committed to returning to their “roots” and being catalysts for the growth and improvement of their communities.

The six new Northeast Tennessee Scholars are Gustavo Castillo, Hamblen County; Derek Driskill, Cocke County; Samuel Hensley, Greene County; Macy Noe, Hamblen County; Mabel Olson, Sullivan County; and Brandolyn Thomas, Unicoi County.

Gustavo  Manuel Castillo is a senior at Morristown East High School. He is a member of Beta Club and participates in the TRIO program at Tusculum University.  He is a member of the Psychology Club, Interact Club, PSI Alpha High School National Honor Society and as class President in his Student Council.  He received state recognition twice in the Talent Identification Program.  He was a participant in Tennessee American Legion Boys State, where he was elected House of Representatives Minority Leader.  He was selected for Youth Leadership of Morristown. Gustavo is an avid sports fan and is a starter for the Varsity Soccer and Football teams at Morristown East High.  He is the son of Sara Perez.

Derek Ryan Driskill is a student at Cocke County High School. He serves as National Honors Society president, Beta Club secretary, Key Club Treasurer, and team captain for Scholars Bowl.  He is a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Mu Alpha Theta, ACT+30 Club, and Walters State Community College Spanish Honors Society. Derek is team captain of the cross-country team, and the track team at Cocke County High.  He has received awards in AP European History, AP United States History, SDC Pre-Calculus, Honors Physics, and he was a Boys’ Nation Finalist.  He is the son of Randy and Angel Driskill.

Samuel J.O. Hensley attends South Greene High School.  His honors include, recipient of WoodmenLife Chapter 111 American History Award, Published Writer for The Greene County Pioneer, fifth place in Public Speaking at Tennessee Future Business Leaders of America State Conference, and Andrew Johnson Women’s Club 2018 Division IV short story competition winner. He serves as president of his senior class, an officer in the Technology Club, and an officer in Future Business Leaders of America.  He is a member of National Honors Society, Student Council, SGHS Talent Search, prom committee, and National Society of High School Scholars. Sam has been the announcer for various school events, such as, baseball, softball and pep rallies and serves as the baseball statistician and manager.  He is the son of Tommy Hensley and Elizabeth Murray.

Macy Danielle Noe is a senior at Morristown West High School with a 4.0 GPA.  Macy serves as Student Body president, Mu Alpha Theta president, ALA Girls State Delegate, Student Congress on Policies in Education Delegate, Beta Club secretary, and Team Captain of Scholars Bowl.  She was selected to serve on the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. She is a member of the Speech and Debate Club, Morristown Youth Leadership, and Science Club. Macy is the daughter of Kathy and David Noe.

Mabel Baleigh Olson is a student at Sullivan East High School. She is Student Council president, Homecoming Chair, SkillsUSA CAD president, and Mu Alpha Theta secretary/treasurer. She is a Peer Tutor for Math Students.  She is a member of National Honors Society, Beta Club, and is a senior leader on the Sullivan East Lady Patriot Basketball Team.  Her awards include, third in technical drafting at SkillsUSA State Competition, and a Certificate of Merit in Personal Finance, CAD 1, and CAD 2.  She was nominated by her principal for the EPIC Award. She was recognized by Middle Tennessee State University for outstanding academic dedication as a freshman, to be a part of the True Blue 100.  Macy is the daughter of Melissa Pope and William Olson.

Brandolyn Ashe’ Ruth Thomas attends Unicoi County High School. She serves as Student Body president, and previously as vice president. She is the Mock Trial Varsity Lead Attorney, Drama Club vice president, and team captain of varsity tennis.  She is a member of National Honor Society, Beta Club, S.A.D.D. (Students Against Destructive Decisions), and Chick-Fil-A Leadership Academy.  She has been honored with the following awards: Member of the Year Award by the Tennessee Association of Student Councils; and UCHS Presidential Award and Administrator Award. She was voted Most Valuable Member of Mock Trial by the Tennessee Bar Association. Brandolyn is the daughter of Randy Thomas.

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Join Lyn Ford this Saturday, September 21 for a workshop on Educating the Mind and Heart: Storytelling Skills to Build Classroom Community.

This class aims to show how the centuries-old art of storytelling can build community and encourage communication for K-2 classroom behaviors.

This workshop is $30 but provided free to area teachers through the generosity of the Niswonger Foundation and will last from 9:30-11:30 a.m. 

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Niswonger Scholar Alumni Learn-Earn- Return

Fundamental to the design and purpose of the Niswonger Foundation's Scholarship and Leadership program is the Scholars' commitment to return to Northeast Tennessee, using their education, experiences and personal commitment to serve as the leaders of the region.  This fall, the Niswonger Foundation welcomes four more Alumni home.  Spanning careers from education, to business, to medicine, these scholars will put their Niswonger Foundation leadership training to excellent use, joining many other Alumni who are fulfilling their personal commitment to the Foundation's mission to "Create opportunities for individual and community growth through education and other sustainable projects."

Meet our most recent Northeast Tennessee Niswonger Scholar Alumni:


Ms. Hope Adkins is a Niswonger Scholar Alumna, Class of 2018.  She graduated high school at Volunteer in Hawkins County.  She earned a degree Family and Consumer Sciences Education from Carson-Newman University.  Hope is the daughter of Jeffrey and Tonya Adkins of Church Hill.  She taught Family and Consumer Sciences at West High School, in Knoxville, for one year.  Hope has accepted a position at Carson-Newman University as Alumni Relations Coordinator.

Ms. McKenzie Reynolds is a Niswonger Scholar Alumna, Class of 2018.  She received her high school diploma from North Greene High School, her accounting degree and Masters of Accountancy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  McKenzie is currently completing the CPA Exams.  She is the daughter of Jon Reynolds and Edwina Orr of Greeneville.  McKenzie has accepted a position as Staff Auditor with Blackburn, Childers and Steagall, in Johnson City, where she resides.

Dr. Cole Seaton is a Niswonger Scholar Alumnus, Class of 2009.  He received his high school diploma from Greeneville High School, a Biomedical Engineering degree from Vanderbilt University and his Medical degree from East Tennessee State University's Quillen College of Medicine.  He is the son of Lloyd and Carolyn Seaton of Mosheim and he is married to Lyndsey Woten, of Knoxville.  They will be welcoming their first child this fall.  They reside in Greeneville.  Cole has completed his Residency at University of Tennessee Medical Center and returned to Greene County, where he has accepted a position with University Radiology at Greeneville Community Hospital East.

Mr. Matthew Widener is a Niswonger Scholar Alumnus, Class of 2019.  He received his high school diploma from David Crockett High School.  He is the son of Randal and Deena Widener of Johnson City.  He earned a degree in English with a minor in Secondary Education from East Tennessee State University.  Matthew has accepted a position as an English Teacher at David Crockett High School.

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P.O. BOX 1508





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Richard Kitzmiller, Veronica Watson, Matthew Desjardins and Sheri Nelson

By: Bekah Price

Public Relations Coordinator
Elizabethton City Schools

If you asked a high school student what his or her summer plans are, you probably wouldn't expect to hear Veronica Watson’s response – teaching teens computer coding.

The Elizabethton High School (EHS) sophomore first began coding at a week-long summer Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Camp for 5th – 12th grade students organized by East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and the Niswonger Foundation. As a middle school student, Veronica began teaching at these camps – the only instructor who wasn’t already in college or graduate school. During the school year, she continues her education independently and in high school courses.

This summer, she’s excited to help write the curriculum for a redesigned STEM Camp and to have the opportunity to get published. Her dedication to coding education has not gone unnoticed. Recently ETSU and the Niswonger Foundation presented her with a personal laptop to thank her for her continued involvement.

“The Niswonger Foundation wanted to recognize her dedication to service and her spirit of giving,” said Dr. Nancy Dishner, President and CEO of the Niswonger Foundation. “We hope the computer will be a reminder to her that we can use our own hands to make a difference in the lives of others.”

For Veronica, this meant a lot.

“I’m not in sports, and I’m not in band or a cheerleader. I’m in a typically unrepresented group, but I’m doing important work,” she said.

“It’s important to learn code because it is a very lucrative and rapidly growing field which most people aren't applying for,” she said. “Technology is the future, so it is amazing to be a part of shaping that picture.”

Dishner said Veronica is an extraordinary example of the power of the STEM Camp experience.

“She was not only a participant, but became a mentor and teacher to other students,” Dishner said. “She volunteered countless hours to assisting with the camp’s activities.”

And she doesn’t do it for volunteer hours or recognition. Coding opened her eyes to a world of creativity and opportunities, and she wants to share that with others.

In addition to her work the STEM Camps, she worked with the EHS Bartleby Junior program to teach 4th and 5th grade students the fundamentals of coding using a simple program called Scratch.

“It’s easy if you work hard and start with simple programs such as Scratch,” she said. “It’s similar to learning another language.”

Because of the indispensable perspective that she has to offer on helping students get plugged in to this field, she was invited to attend an XQ Live Student Roundtable in Nashville. She also attended a meeting with community stakeholders to determine the viability of a virtual reality design program at EHS. That program is expected to launch in the 2019-20 school year.

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JCHS Niswonger Scholars Accomplishing Great Things

The Standard Banner

Jefferson County, Tennessee

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

By: Mark Brown, Reporter

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.”

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The NISWONGER FOUNDATION has selected five high school seniors to join the Scholarship and Leadership program in Fall 2019.  Currently, there are 19 Niswonger Scholars, with the newly selected students bringing the total to 24.  The Foundation also has 72 Alumni of the program. 

Unique to other scholarship and leadership programs, the goal of this Scholarship and Leadership program is to identify and develop leaders for Northeast Tennessee. These students commit to returning to Northeast Tennessee to work in their chosen career path, one year for each year they receive our scholarship.  The plan is that by enabling these students to pursue their academic passion and by cultivating their leadership abilities, they will be committed to returning to the region as catalysts for the growth and improvement in their home communities. 

Niswonger Scholars are selected through a nomination process that seeks to identify the region’s best and brightest future leaders.  They are given the opportunity to attend the college or university that will best prepare them for success in their field of study, while participating in a four-year leadership program. Through an emphasis on leadership, educational excellence, business management, community service and ethical decision making, the Scholars are provided travel, training, internships, and personalized support to become model leaders and citizens.  

The five new Scholars are Makayla Davis, West Greene High School; Trent Dickerson, Morristown East High School; Aisling Hagan, David Crockett High School; Erica Seal, Hancock County High School; John Turner, Jefferson County High School.

Makayla Lashay Davis
attends West Greene High School. She served as an officer in FCCLA and president of the Blue and Gold Club.  She is a member of the National Honor Society, National English Honor Society, Tennessee Tomorrow, and Future Business Leaders of America.  She is a cheerleader; and is a student athlete, playing both soccer and tennis at West Greene.  She is active in her community through her church. She is employed at Food Country USA.  Makayla is the daughter of Carolyn Dean, Greeneville.

Trenton Chase Dickerson is a senior at Morristown East High School. He is class president, Ambassador for the Student Congress on Policies in Education, and captain of the cross-country team. He has served as president and librarian of the school choir. He is a member of the School Board Advisory Council, 31+ ACT Club, and DECA. Trent’s awards include the National Merit Scholarship, recognized as Commended Student; All East Tennessee Honor Choir; All State Tennessee Honor Choir; 1st place Regional DECA Conference; and 3rd Place State DECA Conference.  He serves as a Youth Worship Leader, Bible School volunteer, and through COPE. He completed a summer internship with Morristown Utility Systems.  Trent is the son of Phillip and Tina Dickerson, Russellville.

Aisling Grace Hagan is a student at David Crockett High School. She is president and former secretary of the David Crockett FFA Chapter. She serves as president, previously vice-president, of the Student Council; and is the Student Representative on Washington County School Board. She was chosen by the faculty to attend the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Conference and the Student Congress on Policies in Education.  Her awards include 1st place State Nursery/Landscaping, 2nd place National Forestry, 1st place State Forestry, and 1st place State Floriculture. Aisling participated in a Rotary Club Student Exchange to Austria.  She is a member of National FFA Organization, Student Council, BETA Club, Junior Civitan International, French Club, Creative Writing Club and the Washington County Youth Soil Conservation.  Aisling is the daughter of James and Kate Hagan, Jonesborough.

Erica Brooke Seal attends Hancock County High School.  She is president of her 4-H Club; and has served as vice-president and reporter of the Future Farmers of America. Erica is a student athlete, playing soccer at Hancock High. She serves her community through 4-H, the Adult Education Offices in Rogersville and Sneedville, and through Sneedville’s Annual Fall Festival.  Erica is the daughter of Jennifer Greene and Shane Seal, Sneedville.

John Henry Turner is a senior at Jefferson County High School.  He is president of Leo Club and a member of National Technical Honors Society, Scholars Bowl, Beta Club and Jefferson County Youth Leadership.  He was named Sophomore Business Student of the Year and was a Scholars Bowl competitor. John has completed 130 hours of community service.  He is the son of John and Crystal Turner, New Market.

Established in 2001, the Niswonger Foundation has a mission “To create opportunities for individual and community growth through education.”  In addition to the Scholarship and Leadership program, the Niswonger Foundation supports educational programs in seventeen Northeast Tennessee school systems. With the motto of “Learn-Earn-Return,” the programs of the Foundation are supported by charitable donations, grant funding and personal contributions from Scott M. Niswonger.

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