A Mentor Making a Difference in the Lives of First-Generation College Students

06/16/2015 08:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

While working as a guidance counselor at one of the lowest performing schools in Florida, Travis Pinckney noticed that students weren't energized by school. But he saw how they became invigorated while talking about clothes and shoes they purchased and music they heard or made. Travis says, "I saw that not as a problem but a solution to student disengagement."

Travis designed his College R-E-D program as a response to observing the values. "Students can grab onto the idea of what college looks like by having fashion and music to hold onto more concrete things." Students share their college and career dreams and create an action plan to get closer to their future goals. Schools implement his T-shirts as a part of their incentive system, and use his videos and music to teach students what it means to have a College R-E-D lifestyle, mindset and attitude.

Travis' work is also made powerful by the fact that he has been where the students are. Students are able to relate to Travis' background and he serves to illustrate where they could be one day. Travis knows the power of his message relies on cultural relevance and demonstration:

It takes information plus demonstration to create motivation. Using videos, fashion, and music gives context to the information. I myself am both sides of a bridge. The students are looking to cross from where they are today to where they can be in the future. I have been where they are today, and I am what they could be in the future -- college graduate, community leader, and exhibit vibrancy. I'm very energetic, I use music -- I'm very culturally relevant to the students.

Travis makes his impact largely through his music. Music had always been a powerful force in Travis' life, channeled more powerfully and concretely as he moved from his community, though college, and ultimately into community leadership roles. Growing up in a neighborhood in Jacksonville with high crime and poverty rates, Travis' mother fed four children of a $20,000 salary.

His uncle was a police officer and a pastor who had a significant impression on Travis. At the age of 16, with his uncle's encouragement, he began to play piano publically at the local church. Here he discovered his passion for music. "I taught myself how to play piano during dark times and I made white and black create vibrant color in my life."

After taking control of his dreams and academics, and taking the ACT seven times, Travis was awarded an $80,000 scholarship to the University of North Florida. There, under the mentorship of Dr. Chris Janson, his passion for music began to take shape in the early seeds of College R-E-D. "He led me to hone in on my musical gifts. Dr. Janson believed in my idea when I was a freshman."

Assistant Principal of South Creek Middle School Larry Hodgkins met Travis at a North Carolina Community Learning Exchange. Larry recalls, "That was the first time that I had the opportunity to meet Travis. We struck up conversation about their work, had some similar thoughts regarding student motivation. He developed R-E-D as a model based on his experience." After meeting Travis and hearing about this idea, he worked to get the program implemented at South Creek Middle School.

Hodgkins notes sensing "an excitement and an energy level around school. Students now see their academics as a vehicle of success." He says music has been an incredibly powerful component of this work. According to Hodgkins, Travis can walk into a school full of students and energizes them. He engages with them, and stays accessible with video blogs and his music. Hodgkins says the music gives Travis' message "credibility and buy-in and appeal. It gets their attention and says. 'Hey, I understand you as a student.'"

Travis' community centered empowerment has had powerful outcomes. At South Creek, since their adoption of the R-E-D model, their proficiency has risen across all grade-levels and subjects, and discipline referrals have dropped 30 percent.

The CLE, the breeding ground of College R-E-D, embodies the concept of community-based education that Travis has demonstrated. These exchanges, which take place around the country, emphasize viewing "communities and people as the new instructors and texts for learning" and encouraging "community members to share actions, practices, ideas and outcomes with one another in environments that respect and value local wisdom." This meeting in 2013 was the place where Travis' idea moved from the embryonic stage and transformed into college R-E-D. Dr. Matthew Militello and Dr. Chris Janson, two of Travis' key mentors, are members of the national CLE organizing team and were instrumental in helping Travis lift his project off the ground.

Travis attributes his success largely the wisdom of his mentors. Mel Gottlieb, a philanthropist and businessman, met Travis four years ago at the University of North Florida. "He's an exceptional young man." Gottlieb met with Travis often, and says he talked with him about keeping "focused on his mission and not to get sidetracked" and keeping "his passion on what he cares about."

Empowerment starts at a young age. Travis laughs as he describes his four-year-old twins TJ and Bella singing his college preparedness songs. "They go up to their friends and say, 'what do you want to be? Where are you going to college?' Four years old! It just shows the power we have to define ourselves. My daughter wants to be a nurse and my son a computer engineer."

To learn more about nationwide Community Learning Exchange visit: