“It allowed me to expand my dreaming and realize that dreaming wasn’t some intangible thing – and my teachers showed me how to get there.”
On December 16, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida, KIPP Nashville’s mission officially came full circle. As part of the founding KIPP Academy Nashville class, Azariah Bridgewater became the first KIPPster to graduate from college. She graduated early – summa cum laude with a major in Spanish – so she could get a jump on her graduate work in demography.
“I was kind of in disbelief,” said Azariah, remembering that moment right before she accepted her diploma. “As each row got up, I started getting more antsy and excited. I was about to pop out of my chair. I just remember thinking, ‘I’m ready for this, let’s go!’ And to be able to celebrate with Mom, who’s been through the whole process with me, was so special.”
With an easy laugh, Azariah is quick to tell you that getting to this point didn’t come without sacrifices. Her journey to and through college started in the classrooms at KIPP Academy Nashville in 2006 when she joined the founding class as a 6th grader.
Azariah’s writing teacher at the time, Misty Caldwell – who still teaches at KAN – has this memory:
“Azariah was an exceptional student both academically and behaviorally. She put forth 100 percent effort on every assignment. As a writer, she would often revise and rewrite her work to ensure her final product would be something she would be proud to attach her name to. She often would be chosen to help conference with other students and add her insight to their written work. Her interaction with other students and her kindness is what we hope for all students to embody. Azariah had a big heart for helping others.”
Craving a challenge, Azariah and her Mom, Brandy Bridgewater, found themselves talking about their options during Azariah’s fifth grade year.
“Azariah wasn’t happy with her experience at the school she was going to, and I honestly thought about pulling her out and homeschooling her,” said Brandy. “I heard about KIPP through Oprah, and I remember thinking ‘I hope there’s one in Nashville.’ I literally just called up the school, set up an appointment, and the rest is history.”
“My first impression of KIPP was ‘Wow, my teachers aren’t just behind a desk. They’re walking around, they’re helping,’ and ‘this is entertaining!’” added Azariah. “Things just stuck better, and I wasn’t confused when I got home. It was very interactive. I knew my teachers and they gave us their phone numbers. I thought it was a really cool approach to treating students as people rather than just ‘this is my job’. The humanity aspect is really there. It’s evident they’ve invested more in this than just ‘this my job.’”
Randy Dowell, KIPP Nashville’s Executive Director and Founder, remembers, “Azariah was an amazing human being. She set really high expectations for herself and others. She had such a big growth mindset and was always looking for ways to learn and stretch herself.”
One of Azariah’s favorite middle school memories was a class trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“We stayed in a yurt, went to the Olympic training grounds, hiked and visited the Air Force Base.”
While thinking through all her middle school memories, Azariah can pinpoint the spark that lit the fire and ultimately set her on the trajectory that landed her where she is today.
“The game changer for me came when a Phillips Andover recruiter visited our school and talked about Massachusetts, the boarding school and the opportunities at a school like that, and I was like ‘Oh wait, there’s something bigger than Nashville here.’ That visit opened the possibility that you don’t have to stay in the state,” said Azariah. “To me, KIPP was a game-changer in terms of dreaming capabilities. It allowed me to expand my dreaming and realize that dreaming wasn’t some intangible thing – and my teachers showed me how to get there.”
After graduating from KIPP Academy Nashville, Azariah went on to complete high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, another prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire. She spent one year at Boston University before transferring to FSU.
Even though she left KIPP, because at the time, the high school had not yet been established, the KIPP Through College team kept in touch with Azariah. KTC Counselor, Tiffany Russ, attended Azariah’s graduation.
“Ms. Russ was great about following up with me, just communicating about what’s going on, do I need help,” said Azariah. “This year, she helped me figure which classes to consider taking, as I was deciding whether or not to enroll in my master’s program. It was nice to have a sounding board.”
The rest of the KAN founding class will graduate in May. And more classes of graduates will follow. And the KIPP Nashville Alumni Class of 2016 surpassed national high school graduation rates and sent more students to four year colleges than ever before.
Dowell said, “I think Azariah’s graduation is the tip of the iceberg. We say that we exist to help Nashville students climb the mountain to and through college and have a world of opportunity on the other end of that. When I talked to Azariah a couple weeks before she graduated, I asked ‘What’s next?’ She’s already received a scholarship and enrolled in a master’s program, studying for the LSAT and she’s interested in Harvard and Vanderbilt. This is it. That’s the access to opportunity we promised we would try and create. It goes without saying, I’m incredibly proud of her.”
As more and more KIPPsters follow in Azariah’s footsteps, she leaves this piece of advice, “When the work gets harder, and you feel yourself pulling away, stay focused and tell yourself, ‘This will pay off’.”