ETSU Elevates

Story by Melissa Nipper | Photos by Charlie Warden

Elevate: (verb)  to lift up or make higher:  RAISE

What happens when you take nine student teams who have big ideas for improving their communities and mentor and pair them with organizations that share their vision?

You create an incubator for community-engaged learning.

Next, you establish an initiative that invests a total of $25,000 into these community projects, providing hands-on learning opportunities that allow the students to turn their big ideas into real-world impact.

The result is ETSU Elevates – a pitch competition that kicked off East Tennessee State University’s inaugural Founders Week festivities on October 9.

The pitch competition featured nine projects that paired students with nine different community partners to address a societal issue of their choice. The students presented their pitches in front of a live audience and three judges at the ETSU Martin Center.

“In many respects, ETSU Elevates brings the mission of the university to life in a way in which our students have the opportunity to learn the importance of giving back, the importance of community connection, and the importance of mission,” said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland.

The ETSU Elevates participants were chosen through a competitive process and worked throughout the summer of 2023 at a civic engagement boot camp, led by Joy Fulkerson and Nathan Farnor, to dig deeply into the issues they identified.

“Through ETSU Elevates, these students were given the resources, support, knowledge, and tools to take these ideas and these beliefs and turn them into something actionable, something real,” said Farnor, ETSU Coordinator of Leadership and Civic Engagement. “And that is something that will go far beyond ETSU.”

Sarah Mohammed receives award for winning ETSU Elevates pitch competition


ETSU invested seed money into each of the nine projects, and the winners received additional funding to develop their projects. Three judges selected first-, second-, and third-prize winners, and the audience voted on its favorite project for the Audience Choice Award.

The judges included Bradley Eshbach, owner/operator of The Generalist and Managing Director, Creative Energy, Johnson City; Melissa Roberts, Executive Director, Appalachian Promise Alliance, Bristol; and Aundrea Salyer, Chief Business Development Officer, Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. 

Sarah Mohammed, a sophomore majoring in clinical psychology, earned first place from the judges and the Audience Choice Award for her project focusing on Black mental health care access. Abby Simpson, a rehabilitative health sciences major, was the second-place winner for her project aiming to prepare high school students for life after graduation.

Leah Loveday, a sophomore community health major, along with Rebecca Pearson and Lillian Hollenbeck, earned third place for their project to educate girls and their families about women’s health and reduce the stigma frequently associated with menstruation.

“All of the pitches were absolutely incredible, and all of the community partners are deserving of the attention and support,” said Dr. Susan McCracken, ETSU Vice Provost for Community Engagement. “Each project received funding for a seed project, and you cannot put a price on the hands-on learning experiences gained by our students throughout the process.”

This was not the first time ETSU introduced a pitch competition to elevate community partnerships. ETSU Elevates was originally launched in 2019 but ended abruptly in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The first iteration of ETSU Elevates was nothing short of amazing – from the community response and involvement to the opportunities it provided to our students,” said Noland. “We have been waiting a long time to relaunch a newly imagined ETSU Elevates, and our inaugural celebration of Founders Week was a good fit for an event that so perfectly supports our mission to improve the quality of life for the people of this region and beyond.”

Students are currently working on ideas for 2024 ETSU Elevates projects, and they will submit formal applications in March for seed funding and participation in the fall 2024 Pitch Event. Community partners interested in connecting with ETSU Elevates students may visit for more information.



Sarah Mohammed

First Place and
Audience Choice Award Winner
Black Mental Health Care Access

Sarah Mohammed

Sarah teamed up with the Northeast Tennessee Association of Black Social Workers to mobilize Black communities’ self-advocacy for mental health.

“The research that I gather in this project will allow me to prove that communities of color deserve quality mental health care, which means allotting resources to think about their concerns and really reach out to them specifically.”


Abigail Simpson

Second Place
Looking Ahead

Abigail Simpson

Partnering with Hawkins County Schools, this project seeks to ensure that students have plans for a clear path ahead when they graduate from high school.

“This is going to be an after-school program located at Volunteer High School in Church Hill, Tennessee, that will help high school students prepare for life after they graduate. Whether they’re going straight into the workforce or they’re going to college, it’s going to allow them to gain life skills to help them be successful.”

Leah Loveday and Rebecca Pearson

Third Place
PEER-iod Educators

Leah Loveday, Rebecca Pearson, and Lillian Hollenbeck

This team is working with RISE: Healthy for Life to facilitate comprehensive menstrual health education for adolescents and their parental figures.

“This project involves college-aged students setting up a series of workshops for both elementary school-aged menstruators and their respective parents and educating them on menstruation. The overarching goal of this project is to educate and destigmatize menstruation for both the individuals menstruating and their family units.”

Kaylie Bishop
Jeremy Dubhrós
Muhammad Elahi

The Aloe Initiative

Kaylie Bishop

Kaylie is working with LXI to create a mentorship program to help youth experiencing the absence of a parent due to incarceration, substance abuse, and/or death by partnering them with college students having similar experiences.

“My project aims to help the kids feel supported and feel like they have extra backing that they don’t generally have because of the lack of parental support within their own lives because of what their parents are going through.”

Appalachian Veterans Festival

Jeremy Dubhrós

Jeremy is partnering with community veterans organizations and ETSU Military and Veterans Services to increase resiliency in the veteran community by providing networking opportunities.

“I will be working on the Appalachian Veterans Festival, which is an event that will be bringing together veteran service organizations, along with musicians and artists, and hopefully increase community engagement in the veteran community.”

Delivering Eye Care to Appalachia

Muhammad Elahi

In partnership with Appalachian Miles for Smiles, Muhammad is connecting community members in rural Appalachia to comprehensive vision screenings and therapy to prevent blindness and enhance vision. “There are so many people who aren’t able to have access to basic eye screenings.

Because of that, diseases go undetected and more and more people end up losing their vision and going blind. Our goal is to ultimately catch the diseases early and preserve and protect the gift of sight.”

Grace Ijitade
Jesse Miller
Mattie Raza

Caring Connection

Grace Ijitade

Grace partnered with Mooresburg Community Association on an effort to reduce social isolation among older adults living in rural communities by connecting them to college students. 

"Many older adults feel socially disconnected from their environment and from their community, but this social isolation can actually be addressed if we can bring intergenerational communication between undergraduates and older adults.”

Project Capture It

Jesse Miller

Jesse teamed up with Fairview Housing’s Manna House to help amplify the voices of underrepresented communities as a means to create compassion and reduce stigma.

"My project focuses on homelessness and homelessness stigma in the downtown Johnson City area. I think all people deserve to curate their own story and to define how they’re perceived and how they’re represented, and how they take up space in the world. I want to give people who don’t have the resources to do that a chance to do that.”

The Viola Project

Mattie Raza

Mattie is working with Frontier Health’s Willow Ridge to address gaps in care for women with a substance use disorder who are experiencing domestic violence.

"My project focuses on mental health as it relates to substance use disorder and women who have experienced domestic violence. My goal in this program is to make sure that domestic violence programming is made available in substance use treatment programs locally.”


Read more incredible stories in the Winter 2024 Edition of ETSU Today. #BucsGoBeyond

ETSU Today | Winter 2024

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