Courtney Cole first debuted on the country-pop scene in 2011 as a contestant on CMT’s Next Superstar. After the last episode aired, she inked a deal as a songwriter. She’s since put out two EPs, toured with Miranda Lambert, and attracted thousands of fans with feisty tracks like “Ladylike”, and soulful ballads like “Fall Like Rain.” Critics have compared her to a younger Taylor Swift.
But if Cole hadn’t gone to Belmont University, she says she’d probably be working an odd job in her rural hometown of Mandeville, Louisiana. Education is an integral part of her burgeoning career. That’s why she is CMT Empowering Education’s spokesperson for 2016.
The goal of the organization is to inspire individuals to continue their education beyond high school. The campaign’s site, cmtempoweringeducation.com highlights how to overcome traditional obstacles—like time, fear and money—and enables visitors to create an action plan to help them get started on their path to a degree or certificate.
As Empowering Education Ambassador, Cole is sharing firsthand the impact that education had on her life and encouraging others to go to school or back to school.
“My parents came from a generation where higher education wasn’t a necessity,” said Cole. That is no longer the norm. Many jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, and the job market is ruthlessly competitive. This often leaves young adults scrambling to make educational decisions without much thought. They might be overwhelmed by choices of schools and majors, and pick something purely for its career potential, rather than something that aligns with their interests. Or they might give up on education altogether.
This was not the case for Cole, who has been a creative performer since childhood. Her first performance was a lip-sync rendition of “I Got You Babe” with her father at a local church talent show. “It got me hooked on being on stage,” says Cole. Her passion blossomed from there. She enrolled in musical theater at age 10, and bought an $80 guitar from a pawn shop when she was 13. She didn’t know how to play—but taught herself by watching Internet videos on her family computer.
In high school, she applied and was accepted to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a prestigious arts training center. Cole attended NOCCA in addition to her local public school. She had to drive 45 minutes back and forth each afternoon, but it was worth it. She engaged in a robust curriculum of dance, theater, visual, and even culinary arts, and developed her storytelling abilities.
Perhaps the most valuable part of attending NOCCA was meeting fellow artists—something she hadn’t experienced in rural Mandeville, where Friday night fun was playing hide-and-seek at Wal-Mart. Finally, Cole was in her element. “It gave me a sense of identity,” she says.
When it came time to choose a college, Cole’s father wanted her to attend a state school. Although he was proud of her musical talent, he thought she should pursue a degree in a more practical subject, at a local school where she could save money.
But Cole had different priorities. “I’m not a practical person. I follow my heart.” She wanted to attend a university where she could develop herself as an artist, writer and performer. Her mother agreed, and encouraged Cole to apply to Belmont University in Nashville. She auditioned for the music program and was accepted.
At Belmont, Cole majored in music theory, with an emphasis on music business. “It gave me the background in publishing,” says Cole, “And it helped me understand what I was getting into.” In addition to learning the language of music, Cole devoted time to songwriting. She says she was inspired by the prolific writing community at Belmont.
When it came time to find an internship, Cole was proactive. She used social media to network, messaging representatives for entertainment companies. One day, a manager from Black River Entertainment offered Cole an internship. The company hired her after she graduated in 2009. She was promoted from publishing assistant to executive assistant and finally, radio coordinator.
Cole worked retail in college and during her time at Black River Entertainment to cover the expenses of student loans. No matter how exhausted she was after work, she made sure to carve out time to write. “I didn’t get much sleep,” said Cole, “But it was worth it.”
Her perseverance paid off in 2010, when Black River Entertainment signed her on as a publisher. Now, Cole is getting paid to do what she loves, and she’ll always look back on her college degree as one of her greatest achievements.
This summer Courtney will be touring and constantly working on new songs. But she’ll also perform at 10 CMT Empowering Education events on partner community college campuses across the country, helping potential students realizes the endless opportunities for getting a degree.
“Education gave me direction,” says Cole. “I feel like I’m all set to go wherever I want in life.”
Visit CMT’s Empowering Education website to find your direction.