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For Robert Taylor, education has been a constant in a life of change.

Taylor, of Nashville, is part of the incoming class of Volunteer Bridge students. The dual-enrollment program invites eligible students to live on the UT campus while completing their first year at Pellissippi State Community College. After successfully completing the program, Volunteer Bridge students transfer to UT as sophomores.

This year, Volunteer Bridge expects 200 incoming students, the largest class since it began in 2011.

Growing Up in Foster Care

Originally from New York, Taylor was only six when he and his younger brother and sister were removed from their parents’ custody and placed into foster care. He lived in three different foster homes until he was adopted at age 10. But at age 17, he found himself back in a foster care group home in Nashville.

When he turned 18, Taylor was connected with Monroe Harding—a Nashville organization that provides an independent living program for youth who have aged out of foster care. The agency helped him get set up in a house with two roommates where he received daily support from visiting staff members.

“I was zoned for a public school that didn’t have the best reputation, so I began searching for alternatives for my senior year,” he said. With the agency’s help, he applied and was accepted into Middle College High School, a dual-enrollment school with Nashville State Community College where students take both high school classes and college classes.

Agency staff also helped him find employment. During the summer he worked two jobs, at Krispy Kreme doughnuts and at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, a popular Nashville eatery. He juggled his job at Puckett’s with classes during the school year.

Finding His Way to UT

Taylor was looking at his college options when he got an invitation to Big Orange Preview, a UT visit program.

Aside from watching a few football games, Taylor said he he didn’t know much about UT. He had never considered applying.

But a staff member from Monroe Harding encouraged him to accept the invitation and visit campus.

With money he’d saved from his job, he bought a Greyhound Bus ticket to Knoxville.

“I fell in love with the campus and thought, ‘I want to go here now.’”

He applied to UT and was invited into the Volunteer Bridge program.

In May, when Taylor graduated from high school, the Monroe Harding agency posted a photo of him in his cap and gown and shared his story.

“Robert embraced all the opportunities we offered him,” it said. “He learned how to shop for his own food, manage his finances and balance his job with his studies. Robert has found a new level of awareness and resilience within himself that is helping him prepare for the next chapter of his life.”

Taylor has received some scholarships to pay the bills, and he hopes to find a work-study position or a job to make ends meet. He isn’t sure what he wants to major in—maybe political science, maybe business.

The road isn’t going to be easy, but Taylor is up for the challenge.

He explains that education helped him persevere through the foster care system, and he knows it is key to a brighter future.

“When you move from foster home to foster home, you can’t take material stuff with you. School—education—I could take it with me.

“I don’t want to be without,” he said. “I’ve seen people who don’t go to school . . . I know what the statistics are.”