MTSU graduate Cynthia Fitzgerald gains much deserved recognition for her good works
By Drew Ruble
It just wasn’t the kind of thing the Nashville native talked about if someone asked her where she was from or how she got to be part of the legal team at the Tennessee Education Lottery. It certainly wasn’t something her and her family discussed. To Cynthia Fitzgerald, it just wasn’t all that interesting.
Looking back, Fitzgerald says she is surprised she even brought up her personal story when she had the chance to meet now First Lady Crissy Haslam on the gubernatorial campaign trail with her husband Bill in 2010.
Fitzgerald was doubly surprised when, months later, she received a call from the office of Gov. Bill Haslam requesting her attendance at his first State of the State address to the Tennessee General Assembly. The reason? Haslam wanted to spotlight Fitzgerald for her determination and will to achieve.
Before Fitzgerald would agree to let her story be told by the governor, she first wanted to ask her mother’s permission. Her mother agreed and said it would be wonderful. So in March, in his first major speech to the state legislature since taking office, Gov. Haslam pointed to Fitzgerald seated in the crowd and began to tell her story.
“I want to share one more story this evening,” Haslam began. “One that shows a commitment to be more and then encouraging others to do the same. My wife, Crissy, as she was on the campaign trail last year, visited a program in Nashville —In Full Motion.
“Cynthia Fitzgerald grew up in a home where college was not expected. Her mother cleaned homes but hoped for more for her children. In high school, Cynthia’s life changed and she learned there were scholarships for college students. She was accepted to MTSU, but then there was a question of how to get there. “There was no family car; transportation was by bus. She got her luggage and started walking the route to the Greyhound Bus station. The driver picked her up, took her to MTSU where she earned her degree. She earned a law degree from Vanderbilt as well.
“Today, she shares her message with inner city youth — that college is for everyone. She and her husband, Maurice, offer ACT prep courses on Saturday mornings. The results — 100 percent graduation rate for students who complete the program. “I want to introduce Cynthia Fitzgerald—someone who is making a difference in the lives of others and ‘Building Champions for Life.’ These are game changers, and there are many others across the state. They point toward a brighter future on the horizon where the dreams and aspirations of young people will be seen, encouraged and fulfilled.”
What is Fitzgerald’s response to Haslam’s decision to highlight her as a “game changer?”
“I’m just a regular old person,” she says. “It’s all about the children. There are a thousand more Cynthia’s.”
No, Cynthia, there are not.
Walking the Walk
Fitzgerald says she recognized early in life that the pathway out of the housing project she lived in would be a combination of hard work and hard study. At 15, she began working in the neighborhood employment office. At 17, she graduated high school a year early — all her necessary credits achieved.
Asked to describe in her own words how she got to the campus of MTSU, Fitzgerald replies simply, “I just started out walking.”
While at MTSU, Fitzgerald majored in accounting and landed summer internships with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After graduation in 1979, the IRS offered her a full-time job. She began to climb the ranks of management as an IRS agent. Now a degree holder with a good job and the strong likelihood of more professional growth ahead, Fitzgerald had come a long way from her humble beginnings. Years passed, and Fitzgerald added wife and mother to her résumé. But a long-held dream still burned inside — Fitzgerald had always wanted to be a lawyer.
In the mid-1990s, she began attending LSAT prep courses at MTSU, a university that she describes as “always at my core.” She passed the test with flying colors, enrolled, and was accepted to law school at Vanderbilt. She quit her job at the IRS.
“It was faith, I guess,” Fitzgerald says. Kind of like walking to the bus stop in Nashville and boarding a bus bound for Murfreesboro.
Fitzgerald received her law degree in 1997 and joined the law offices of Tom Nebel. Then a new dream emerged. Fitzgerald opened her own law firm. The 20-hour work days that ensued were proof of Fitzgerald’s determination to build a sustainable, growing practice. Those plans derailed when Fitzgerald discovered she suffered from scleroderma, a form of lupus. The news impacted Fitzgerald on many levels. Her sister had passed away from complications related to lupus while Fitzgerald was in law school.
As such, Fitzgerald knew she had to slow down professionally. She collapsed her law firm and later secured a job with the Tennessee Education Lottery, where today she is vice president of legal services. Her health issues have since subsided.
Passing it on
But none of that is Fitzgerald’s real story.
Fitzgerald’s real story starts here, after work, in her community. That’s where she’s truly a game changer.
Fitzgerald and her husband Maurice, who for many years was an athletics coach at Pearl Cohn High School in Nashville, had always worked with neighborhood kids on school work. Informal study sessions in their home geared largely toward helping student athletes prep for ACT tests that could get them into college eventually turned in to the formation of a not-for-profit called In Full Motion.
In Full Motion is a “wrap-around” program of support for young people to succeed. It provides free ACT/SAT preparation classes and funds the testing fees to ensure every student has the opportunity to graduate high school and attend the college, trade school, or university of their choice. Classes are held every Saturday morning from 8 to 11 a.m.
In Full Motion’s trained staff of tutors includes educators, college students, administrators and concerned citizens who want to share in making a difference in the lives of youth. Other free-of-charge coursework includes wellness and nutritional counseling, academic reading and TCAP (Gateway) tutoring.
Through Coach Fitzgerald’s Pearl Cohn connections, the program launched with 33 students. Word of the program’s success getting students eligible for college quickly spread. The next year, 88 students enrolled. The year after that, 150 enrolled. Last year, the program topped 600 students. Today, there are 700 students in the program.
“The earlier we get kids focused on college, the better the chance they’ll make it,” Fitzgerald says, adding that the target age is 7th through 10th grade. “Last year, we had a 100% success rate.”
In Coach Fitzgerald’s words, “If we can just help one kid, it is worth our effort.
MTSU President Dr. Sidney A. McPhee applauds the work the Fitzgeralds do to help children reach college. He describes Fitzgerald as a remarkable person.
“Cynthia is a true role model,” he says. “She has carved out her own extraordinary path in this world and she has earned and fought for every opportunity she’s experienced. We are so proud to call her an MTSU alum.”
Even with the exponential growth of their free program, the Fitzgeralds continue to hold down full-time jobs. (Fitzgerald’s husband is now dean of students at Smithson Craighead charter school.) When it gets to feeling like too much of a load, Cynthia Fitzgerald says she has one personal memory that helps her go on. That memory of the day she walked out of her neighborhood, bags packed, and boarded a bus to Murfreesboro to attend MTSU.
“I go back to it all the time for the determination I have,” Fitzgerald says.
Cynthia Fitzgerald doesn’t usually tell her story. But it only takes one look at her life to see just how completely she’s taken the moral of her own story to heart.
CYNTHIA FITZGERALD’S CAREER PATH
- December, 1979: Graduated from MTSU
- May, 1997: Graduated with J.D. from Vanderbilt University School of Law
- 2000: Started the Law Offices of Cynthia Webb Fitzgerald
- November, 2003: Began law career with the Tennessee Educational Lottery Corporation (currently VP of Legal Services for Compliance)
- November, 2005: Launched nonprofit In Full Motion, Inc