Before a captivated audience at the University of South Florida's Kente Awards on Tuesday, sophomore Nya Knighton, the Black Student Union's Miss Uhuru made an impassioned plea.
Knighton, who grew up on the west side of Jacksonville skipping down to the corner store as a grade schooler to get boiled peanuts, longs for a life beyond those simple beginning. She's majoring in international studies with a minor in political science and plans to earn a certification in Asian studies.
She hopes to intern in China some day, but her dream almost got deferred last summer. Her father lost his job in the spring of 2016, but pride prompted him to keep it from the family. With her mother, a school teacher, striving to provide for the family of five, there wasn't funds to cure her debt with the university and allow her to register for fall classes.
A financial aid officer offered her no hope and told her she had no options but to return home, even though she had a 3.6 grade point average and held executive positions in several student organizations.
"You see, to that financial advisor I wasn't Nya," Knighton said. "I wasn't the black girl who spent her grade school afternoons walking to the corner store to buy boiled peanuts. I was just another number, a small decimal in the 37 percent drop out rate here at USF. Would my absence really make a difference?"
Fortunately, Knighton found help in Don't Stop, Don't Drop — a little-known program that gives grants to students who experience an unexpected financial hardship. Now that she has a new lease on college life, she delivered a simple message at the luncheon: "It takes a village to rally behind a student, to create a legacy of success."
And the village appears to be rallying.
USF alumnus and Integral Energy CEO and president Anddrikk Frazier has teamed with other local leaders to form the Black Leadership Network and add to the small but existing number of scholarships set aside for black students. Frazier joined his wife Rena, Jerry and Ruth Duncan Bell, Ed and Monica Narain and the Muir Family to endow scholarships, but he hopes the initial effort will mushroom into a larger team of supporters.
"There's a need for this," said Frazier, who plans to make the network about more than just raising funds. "There used to be more programs that provided support services to African-American students, but those programs are no longer there.
"To give them money -- without providing access to mentors or access to people to help them with job placement or access to help them with any problem -- is a disservice to them."
Expanding and energizing the scholarship support for black students began almost two years ago. Frazier credited Black Faculty Staff Association president Gene Murdock and her initial efforts to rally the village.
And it appears the investment will be a worthy one. A study released by the Education Trust last month recognized USF as a top performing university — No. 1 in the state of Florida and sixth in the nation — for eliminating the completion gap between Black and White students. The rate has soared as high as 20 percent at some schools, but at USF it's 2.1, according to the study.
It helps that the university strives to help create a sense of belonging for students from all walks of life. Stacy Pippen, director of the university's office of multicultural affairs, says the university is proud of its diversity and aims to help students show up with all of their intersecting identities and reaffirm that they matter.
"This is a very large institution and students can easily feel lost in the shuffle," Pippen wrote in an email. "If we can help make them feel more comfortable, welcome, and find a sense of belonging here, we believe we are impacting their lives in a positive way and we are aiding in that student's success."
Knighton concurred, noting the university has a number of "black success stories," and cites her involvement in groups such as the Caribbean Culture Exchange, African Student Association, Sisters Inc. and the Black Student Union for helping her find a "family" among the 42,000 students. It's a key step she recommends to other students.
She added, however, that there's room for improvement.
Frazier said the Black Leadership Network's initial goal is to get $250,000 in commitments through 2020 by this fall. He described the goal as ambitious but attainable.
Let's hope so, because he noted, while universities often boast of new buildings and capital campaigns, none of it matters if the school loses sight of its most important asset: the students.
That's all I'm saying.