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Charles White

College of Education alumnus hosts second annual Great Kilt-A-Thon to support students   

Charles white is holding a mug and standing in the snow in a kilt.When March ended, Tennessee Tech alumnus Charles R. White had two reasons to celebrate: One, he had raised more than $3,000 for low-income TRiO/Upward Bound students in the Knoxville area, and two, he could swap his daily wardrobe of kilts for pants. White wore a kilt every day for 31 days for the second annual Great Kilt-A-Thon.

“It was a great month, but I’m happy to put pants on again,” said White.

White is the director of the Academic Enrichment Upward Bound Program, a federal TRiO program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. TRiO is a series of programs established by Congress in 1965 to help low-income Americans enter college, graduate and contribute to American societal and economic life. AEUB specifically serves students who are potential first-generation college students and/or who come from a financially disadvantaged background and provides support so they may successfully graduate from high school and enroll in college the fall after graduation with the goal of attaining a college degree.

The Great Kilt-A-Thon originated last year when White and his staff learned that one of their AEUB alumni – now a student at UTK – needed some financial assistance. She was a graphic design major and her computer died. She couldn’t afford to replace it, so she had to find a way to purchase another computer or change her major and career path. Like many educators, White and his staff often give to students out of their own pockets. But a new computer was more than they could do. Because the financial hardships and needs of AEUB students do not come to an end when they graduate from high school, White and his staff needed a way to raise money to support current AEUB participants and the program’s alumni through college.

White is of Scottish heritage and wears a kilt for special occasions, including to church on the first Sunday of every month. He jokingly said to the AUEB staff one day that since he loves to wear a kilt, maybe he could get someone to sponsor him to wear one.

“We laughed and said, ‘No one will do that, that’s crazy,’” White recalled. “But then we said, ‘Wait, is it really crazy?’”

During the Great Kilt-A-Thon, a sponsor commits to donating $1 each day ($31 total) for White to wear a kilt every day in the month of March. White adds a new photo of himself in a kilt to his website (greatkiltahon.com) and Facebook page each day so his sponsors can hold him accountable. Regardless of the weather or what he has planned that day, White honors his commitment and puts on a kilt every morning.

“On day 12 this year, we got eight inches of snow,” he said. “So, I took a picture of myself in my kilt, my sweater and my cup of coffee. One of my friends said I looked like an ad for L. L. Bean Scotland.”

Last year, by word of mouth alone, the Great Kilt-A-Thon raised $1,500, enough to purchase a new computer for the student in need. For the Great Kilt-A-Thon’s second year, White and his staff doubled the goal and raised $3,013. While the Great Kilt-A-Thon occurs each March, the program accepts donations throughout the year.

“These funds are helping pay for gas so students can visit colleges,” said White. “One student is homeless, so we are purchasing clothes and taking care of food insecurity. We are already putting the money to use helping students in our programs with things the grant cannot cover.”

White says he is empathetic to the struggles students in the programs face.

“I was a low-income, first-generation college student, and a scholarship from Tennessee Tech made all the difference for me,” said White.

White received both his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and master’s degree in educational psychology and counselor education from Tech, and he has made a career out of helping students succeed.

“The world has changed drastically since I graduated from high school in 1981, but some things are universal constants – that feeling of insecurity when you don’t have anyone with experience to help you through the process,” said White. “A lot of times the cream of the crop students get taken care of, but the students who need more attention don’t. School counselors are tremendously overworked.”

White worked as a teacher, high school counselor and coach at Donelson Christian Academy, Morristown West, Austin East, Austin Peay State University and several other institutions before accepting the position with AEUB at UTK.

“Working in high schools for 25 years taught me what gaps need to be filled with our students,” said White. “I know the struggles of not having a parent that you can depend on for advice about the college application process. We see homelessness and food insecurity and kids who don’t have clothes. It runs the whole gamut.”

White credits his Tech education with preparing him for a career working with students. He also credits Tech for allowing him to meet his wife, Susanne, who graduated from Tech with a degree in accounting.  

“Susanne and I had a great experience at Tech,” White said. “Tech prepared us incredibly well for what we do. People helped us throughout our time at Tech, and we want to pay it forward.”

The Whites started giving to Tech immediately after graduation, and they are 34 years True To Tech (they have given to Tech every year for 34 years in a row). In fact, they have given to Tech every month since 2006.  

“Susanne and I made a decision long ago that we were going to make sure that our money goes where we want it to go and does what we want it to do,” said White. “There are three entities that we donate to every year: Tennessee Tech, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and our church. That’s how much we think of Tennessee Tech. We set up a recurring gift so we never miss a month.”

White says he is happy to see AEUB students at Tech having the same great experiences that he had when he was a college student, and he has seen that the students who choose Tech do well and stay enrolled.

While White says he loves what he does, he hopes to work himself out of job – that is, ideally, there will be a day where students no longer rely on the services AEUB provides. AEUB is a lot of things to the students it serves, but one thing it’s not, says White, is entitlement.

“This is not an entitlement program,” he said. “This is a program that has a huge return on investment. The kids in my program are in my program because of other people’s choices. They were born into this situation through no fault of their own, and if I can give them a hand up like people helped me, I feel like that’s what I’ve got to do.”