After a tornado tore apart the Nashville area in March, David Bradley parked his car near the Meridian apartment complex in Hermitage, Tenn., and started walking toward the main office. It took him an hour to navigate through the rubble, broken glass everywhere and cars skewered by tree limbs. Whole buildings were missing entire sections of walls, and he looked with awe into abandoned rooms.
As a volunteer with Hands on Nashville, a nonprofit helping with the city’s recovery, he jumped in to help the residents of the 272 apartments that had been evacuated. He found answers for questions, connected people with resources and directed new volunteers as they showed up.
“I found myself helping, serving tacos (that had been donated by the Nashville Food Project),” Bradley remembers. “A lot of people in the apartment complex spoke Spanish as their first language. We didn’t understand each other in terms of language, but the communion around eating and food produced a second of normalcy, even though behind me, there were devastated buildings. I put all my energy into giving as much love and positive support as I could.”
What does it mean to serve your community? What does it mean to do good? During these divisive and stressful times, how do you best show up and help?
For Bradley, 27, the answers are coming slowly but surely as he pours himself into the things he’s learning, the identities he’s shaping: at a Starbucks in Gallatin, Tenn., where he works as a shift supervisor; at home, where he’s a newly married husband; and at school, where he’s on the Dean’s List and on track to graduate next spring with an organizational leadership degree from Arizona State University’s (ASU) online program.
This week, Starbucks is proud to celebrate “Back to School” with Bradley and the rest of the 16,000 partners who are currently working towards their college degrees with the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) – a program where Starbucks offers benefits-eligible employees 100 percent tuition coverage for a first-time degree through ASU.
Since the program’s inception in 2014, more than 4,700 partners – from all kinds of backgrounds – have graduated from ASU. Starbucks believes in creating meaningful opportunities for our partners, and believes these degrees will help them reach their full potential while supporting their efforts to address inequities and problems in our society.
Bradley was born in Nashville, and raised in a multigenerational house with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. He calls the time after high school his “blunder years.” He worked in restaurants with no path or purpose. He constantly felt indifferent and uncomfortable. “Long hair, don’t care” was his motto.
Seven years ago, he got a job as a Starbucks barista and eventually transferred to a store in Hendersonville, Tenn., where his manager, Guy Tustin, told him about SCAP and pushed him to try college. “I was nervous and tried to think of a million excuses as to why I was not cut out for college,” Bradley says. “For some reason, he saw a lot of potential in me. He knew that I needed a push.”
When he finally started school in 2016, it felt like “I grabbed onto a train,” Bradley says. Suddenly, he was ingesting 20-30 page papers, studying big issues like poverty and race relations in the South and corporate ethics, analyzing why certain social services got more funding than others, learning leadership principles and trying to apply them to his life.
“I realized all these things were going on in the world, and I realized that just wanting the world to be a better place, it wasn’t a plan, it wasn’t a goal. It was just wishful thinking,” Bradley says. “I transitioned into organizational leadership because I wanted to grow as a leader. I wanted to be a leader that advocated for mental health and the subjects that I cared about. I wanted to use my position and knowledge to highlight important social issues.”
His time with Hands On Nashville, which meets community need through volunteerism, solidified some of those lessons. He’d been placed there through The Starbucks Foundation Service Fellows program, a partnership with Points of Light, which allowed him to work part-time at Starbucks and part-time at the nonprofit for seven months. He describes the weeks helping Nashville recover – the long days, the constant legwork, the simultaneous stress and determination, the passion of the people working around him – as “the most challenging and best experience I have had as a person."
“I’m going to keep my doors open, keep focusing on my studies, keep learning and developing as a person, and when something walks into my line of sight, an opportunity, I’m just going to jump in and see what happens,” Bradley says of his plans after graduation.
“It’s not about trying to find your destination, it’s more about diving into the experience in front of you and trying to take everything from it,” he says. “If you let it, it has the power to transform your life. It’s done that for me.”
A dream of a diploma
For Tatiana Holt, the plan seemed pretty simple. Spend two years in the United States through an au pair-student exchange visa, improve her English and go back home to Bogotá, Colombia, where she’d be a stronger job candidate because of her overseas experience.
But about a year and a half later, at a Starbucks in Westfield, N.J., she met the man who’d eventually become her husband, a videographer with his own freelance production company. “It happened out of nowhere, it all happened so fast,” she remembers. “I ended up staying and starting my life from zero, away from family.”
When the exchange program ended, she needed a job. So she started working as a barista at the same store, picking it because she’d heard several employees speaking Spanish, her native language. Once there, her store manager Victor Espinoza told her about SCAP.
“Victor kept telling me, you can do it, you can do it,” recalls Holt, 31, now a Starbucks shift supervisor in Edison, N.J. “I just thought about it for a long time, about a year, and that’s when I applied with the dream of having a diploma in this country.”
Back in Colombia, as an only child, Holt had nurtured a desire to make a career in video, maybe as a post-production editor or a motion graphics artist. In high school, she’d shot videos while volunteering at the local YMCA, which was trying to help women and families escape poverty.
At ASU, she found a major, graphic information technology, through which she could study 2D and 3D animation. She’s minoring in film and media studies and also working part-time as a teaching assistant.
After a study-abroad opportunity to Italy was cancelled because of COVID-19, ASU placed her, via a global remote learning internship program, with ActionAid, a nonprofit organization based in Australia that seeks to empower women to be leaders in their communities during times of crisis. Holt is working on video projects with ActionAid, giving her an opportunity to push her technical skills and apply them to real-life scenarios.
Holt said she likes the flexibility of online classes and the fact the lectures are always subtitled, so she can follow along and continue to improve her English. After she graduates this spring, she hopes to “create motion graphics that can help people learn about their community and inspire others to become a better version of themselves.” And, she wants to show that women can succeed in video editing and motion graphics, industries Holt sees filled mostly with men.
“When I moved to the U.S., I had to get my first car, my first credit card, my first everything. Even Starbucks, it was my first real job,” Holt says. “These seven years (since coming to America), I’ve changed so much, and Starbucks has helped me with that. And now I’m able to have a degree in the U.S. which I never thought I could be able to do.”
Actress, mom, student: “I won’t let anything stand in the way of this”
After spending her 20s pursuing an acting career, and most of her 30s raising three children, Najja Meeks is now facing a different kind of challenge: finishing college.
“I can tell you it’s not been easy, especially in the beginning, because I hadn’t been a student for so long,” says Meeks, a Starbucks shift supervisor in Burbank, Calif. “It was a very, very steep learning curve, especially the technology. The first semester, I worked so damn hard for those grades.”
She also wanted to set an example for her kids, ages 9, 6 and 4. Meeks, 38, is on track to graduate next spring with a degree from ASU in organizational leadership.
“I really wanted my children to see what setting a goal looked like and the necessary work in reaching it,” she says. “There were nights when I was crying and my kids would ask, ‘Why are you crying about your homework?’ I wanted them to see this process, even the ugly bits.”
Born in California, Meeks lived in Texas for a while before graduating from a performing arts high school in Los Angeles. She had dreams of going to New York City and training to be a stage actor. But although she felt a lot of support, her family situation was complicated, and she couldn’t come up with enough money to start school.
She took some community college classes and worked for a few years in the entertainment industry as an actor and model, but left that career behind when she became a mother.
“I had a manager, had an agent. I was going on auditions for movies and TV shows,” she says. “But being a mom was equally important to me and once I had my daughter, I knew I had to give it my all.”
Meeks applied to work at Starbucks three years ago because she wanted to make enough money to take her eldest daughter to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, a bucket list adventure that’s been put off by the pandemic.
At first, adjusting from being a stay-at-home mom to being managed by an 18-year-old shift supervisor was “very humbling,” she says. But she soon found out about SCAP from another store partner who she worked early-morning shifts with. Buoyed by his enthusiasm – he was almost done with his own SCAP degree – the opportunity for higher education while getting her tuition covered was a no-brainer, she says.
Starbucks offers the benefit without requiring employees to work for the company afterwards, or to study something specific. Meeks, who enjoys working with people and hopes to find a job in human resources, credits her children’s father for giving her “a great amount of support at home” so she could pursue schooling.
Recently, Meeks, who is African American, and two other moms helped establish a committee that works with the local school district and some school board members, advocating for a more diverse teaching staff that better reflects the student body, a more inclusive curriculum and more awareness in matters of social justice.
“I want my children to see themselves and their heritage positively reflected early in their educational career,” she says. Her children are half Mexican American.
Specifically, she wants local schools to expand Black history beyond what seems to her like the same two examples year after year – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Why not also study the many other examples of Black excellence, she asks? Amidst the current social unrest following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Meeks is encouraged by more people in her community speaking up about similar things.
And, she hopes through this journey, she might find her own voice.
“There were times when I’d be at committee meetings with the school board and the superintendent, and I would start suffering the feelings of imposter syndrome,” Meeks says. “The other moms, they have master’s degrees, and a small part of me would shrink behind my friends when it came to speaking. Even though I know I’m more than capable, that self-doubt would creep in. That’s another motivating factor with this degree. I hope it will give me a little more confidence.
“Back in my 20s, once something got hard for me, or the moment I felt uncomfortable, I would immediately find a reason to quit,” she says. “Getting this degree, I decided I won’t let anything stand in the way of this. I refuse to stop until I get to that end goal. I don’t care how old I am. I am so glad that I’ve gone back to school and done something for myself and persisted.”