TAMPA — In more than a decade since she walked across the University of South Florida's graduation stage, Ashley Butler has done well for herself. At 34 years old, she is an Ice Cold Air auto repair franchisee and founder of Unique Otto, a fleet management service company in Tampa.
"When you are blessed you're supposed to be a blessing," her grandmother once told her.
That's why Butler and her wife, Adrien, chose to give back with a $25,000 endowment to support black students at her alma mater. She is one of the four local black business leaders, along with Anddrikk Frazier, Jerry Bell and Ed Narain, behind the Black Leadership Network's fundraiser that now totals more than $80,000. The funds are being used for the university's first scholarship program designated specifically for African-American students.
About 120 students, families, donors and university officials attended a Scholarship Soiree to recognize the recipients and their beneficiaries Wednesday evening at the Gibbons Alumni Center.
Each student will receive a $1,000 scholarship for each year they attend USF, for up to five years. Wednesday many of them were introduced to their beneficiaries, which organizers hope will become another part of the students' support system in addition to the other resources made available to them through the program.
Nearly 70 students applied by submitting essays focused on the financial hardships they face as well as their personal story.
Sophomore Shaheim Ricketts received the Frazier Family Scholarship, funded by Frazier and his wife Rena J. Frazier, chief of policy and communication for the Hillsborough State Attorney's office.
Ricketts told the crowd about his background growing up in the Bronx and how he struggled to stay on the right path despite the drugs and violence that surrounded him. Now an engineering major, Ricketts said the scholarship and participation in the BLN will make a big difference in helping him to continue his education.
Anddrikk Frazier explained that growing a strong support system as well as receiving financial assistance can make a huge difference in a young person's life, especially for young black men who often struggle to ask for help when they need it.
Presenter Dr. Tonjua Williams, who graduated from USF with her master's degree in 1996 and is now president of St. Petersburg College, said that her achievements would not have been possible without scholarship support.
"The village came to my rescue," she said, adding that the donors are "helping people go from poverty to prosperity."
Speaking at the event, university president Judy Genshaft boasted that the school leads the state in its graduation rate for black students, and ranks No. 6 nationally.
Another student, 18-year-old freshman Frea'drika Curry, comes from a family of 14 children in Jacksonville. She is the first in her extended family to attend college, she said, and the financial and network resources made available to her through the Black Leadership Network are invaluable.
"I'm just thankful," said another recipient, Vladimir Leonard. "You don't usually get opportunities like this."
Contact Alli Knothe at firstname.lastname@example.org.