Whitney Curtis and Erin Mckenzie received a life-altering education from Middle Tennessee State University, thanks to the one-of-a-kind Cartwright-Coakley Scholarship.
Curtis and Mckenzie are the first two MTSU graduates of the scholarship, which Michael and Tina Cartwright of Franklin, Tennessee, established in 2015.
Their aim was to help students from L. N. Coakley High School in Great Exuma in The Bahamas receive an education at MTSU and return to work to be leaders in their hometown, George Town, which has a population pushing past 7,000.
A behavioral health business owner and former MTSU student, Michael Cartwright is chairman and co-founder of the Brentwood, Tennessee-based American Addiction Centers. The Cartwrights established a $600,000 scholarship fund, which he said has grown to nearly $1 million, to fully cover six scholarships for tuition, housing and other expenses.
“We committed to get six people educated and have them return to Great Exuma,” Cartwright said of the endeavor. “Erin and Whitney are the first two graduates, we have two more next year and two more coming after that.
“Our goal is to have all of them graduate from MTSU and come back to Great Exuma and help with the schools or in social work and help the local population,” he added. Tina Cartwright earned a master’s degree in education from MTSU, specializing in guidance and counseling.
Led by university President Sidney A. McPhee, MTSU hosted a midday luncheon for Mckenzie and Curtis during the Saturday, May 4, commencement. Alexander Cartwright, a University of Washington computer engineering student and the Cartwrights’ son, joined his father and an uncle, Wallace Cartwright, at the event and at university commencement.
Michael Cartwright said a second luncheon celebration for the two and their families will be held Saturday, May 11, in Great Exuma, which is 120 miles south of Nassau.
McPhee, a native of the Bahamas, applauded the Cartwrights for their ongoing commitment to the island nation through the special scholarship. It not only opens doors for the student recipients but also has the potential to make a lasting impact on the Bahamian community.
“I was thrilled to see these first two graduates walk across the Murphy Center stage to receive their degrees, but knowing they are returning to their home country to begin their professional careers is an added bonus,” McPhee said.
“Higher education can be a game-changer, and MTSU is honored to be a part of this effort to improve lives and communities from a global perspective.”
Mckenzie, 20, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She earned dual minors in business administration and environmental science and technology.
“Graduating from Middle Tennessee State University has been the proudest moment of my life thus far,” Mckenzie said. “Being a recipient of the Cartwright Scholarship has changed my life, not just academically but also culturally.
“Moving from an island of 7,000 people to a school of 23,000 people … my eyes were opened to a totally new culture, which at first was overwhelming, but I eventually grasped the opportunities and used it to my advantage.”
Mckenzie said the Cartwright Scholarship “allowed me to meet some incredible people while becoming a part of the Caribbean Students Association, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and the Scholars Academy — creating friendships that will last a lifetime.”
“I’m so thankful to have been awarded this amazing opportunity for higher education,” she continued. “Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright are a godsend. … If I could have a redo, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I loved being a Blue Raider.
“I always heard that college will be the best four years of your life, and the time I spent at MTSU proved that saying true.”
After completing the Certified Public Accountant exam, Mckenzie said she will return to Exuma and work as an accountant for the Cartwrights.
“I also will become a youth ambassador on my island by using my experiences to motivate and inspire the next generation,” she added.
Cartwright said Mckenzie and Curtis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, will receive $40,000 salaries for their jobs, working in their community and making Great Exuma a better place to live.
Curtis’s time at MTSU inspired her sister Wynter Curtis to become a student at the Murfreesboro university, too. Wynter Curtis is a sophomore majoring in actuarial science.
The Cartwrights have a home in Great Exuma and plan to retire there “and give back to that community,” he said.
Tourism brings visitors to the island’s resorts, but visitors don’t see its desperate needs, which include no running water in portions of the city, run-down schools, needed cleanup of the coral reefs, Cartwright said.
“It would make you cry,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of people helping Great Exuma.”
Cartwright said he hopes his family’s efforts “inspire others to get involved. … Volunteers are needed. You don’t have to give money to give back. You can be a part of Meals on Wheels or pick up trash.”
The couple said their efforts are focusing on “furthering the mission of what MTSU is all about.”
“Anything we can do to help Dr. McPhee build a world-class university and to get (Coakley students) to have a chance in this world” is what the opportunity is all about, he said.
American Addiction Centers operate six inpatient substance-abuse treatment centers in the United States.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)