KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — For people who ask, “Does Project Grad really make a difference?”

Since the college and career guidance program started in Knoxville in 2001, Knox Education Foundation which oversees Project Grad, says the graduation rate at both Austin-East and Fulton High Schools has increased from 50 percent to 82 percent in 2019; those are pre-COVID numbers.

About 700 Austin-East and Fulton Project Grad Scholars have completed post-secondary education and have meaningful careers.

Take for example Gabriel Figueroa, from Austin-East’s Class of 2011. He is a familiar face on campus at the University of Tennessee.

Figueroa enjoys being outside, snapping photos and capturing cool shots to use as Communications Coordinator for the Division of Diversity and Engagement at UT.

This Vol for Life has an orange nameplate on his desk and a poster showing his pride for his UT-Austin-East connection.

“I love it,” Figueroa said with a smile. “I just love being able to work for such an important department and I also get to mesh that with what I love doing.”

One of his latest projects is a pamphlet for an upcoming trip to Rwanda for student leadership training.

“We partner with a lot of other departments and colleges and even just external partners and so I’m usually the person they send flyers or graphics to and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you drum something up? Absolutely, let me take care of it,'” Figueroa said.

This Project Grad scholar from the Austin-East Class of 2011 worked hard to reach his career goals, graduating from Pellissippi State Community College with a degree in video production.

“From there,” Figueroa continued. “I was working in the video landscape and kind of just wanted to broaden my expertise in digital and other aspects of it, so I decided to go back to UT to get my bachelor in Mass Communications, and from there, that just kind of opened up a whole new world for me.”

Graduating from UT, then working there. It is a place he had years earlier, only dreamed about.

“At one point, I was working at Aramark at one of the kitchens at UT and so fast forward a few years and I’m working at UT for a great division,” he said. “Looking back and seeing what I’ve accomplished since then, just to be where I am today, it’s exciting to think about.”