TAMPA — Raised by a single mother in Putnam Hall, 25 miles east of Gainesville, Isaac Washington dreamed of pursuing higher education from a young age. When he got into the University of South Florida, he was ecstatic — but, coming from a community of 150 people, slightly intimidated.
For first-generation students, the transition to college can be especially difficult. For Washington, it wasn’t just classes but all of the other “life things” that overwhelmed.
That’s where the University of South Florida’s Black Leadership Network comes in.
Founded in 2016, the network’s goal is helping Black students at the predominantly white institution flourish.
The program, funded through grants and donations, provides need- and merit-based scholarships to low-income and first-generation Black students to make college more accessible. Of equal importance is the program’s mentorship and professional development.
During a monthly meeting in February, students huddled around tables in the alumni center with plates full of mac and cheese, notebooks spread flat, pens in hand.
In small groups, they chatted about classes and internships, about balancing jobs with extracurriculars and homework, about exorbitant ticket prices for the upcoming Beyoncé tour.
When stomachs were full and socializing was over, the lesson — this time on networking — began.
“We get training on everything from personal finance lessons to insurance,” said Washington, who’s studying civil engineering and has been a member of the network for the last three years. “It’s refreshing that they’re bringing these resources to people like me who may come from communities that didn’t have that type of support.”
The Black Leadership Network has shepherded 127 students since its launch six years ago, said Walter Jennings, the program director of three years.
Jennings, whose job is to help mentor and guide students through their college experience, said the program has three primary focuses. The first is to provide access to education at USF. The second is to keep students engaged once on campus.
“The third happens after they graduate,” Jennings said. “We want them to come back and continue to help the next generation of students to come through.”
Ramy Sadig, a 22-year-old program graduate who lives in Tampa, is a prime example of just that. Though he’s finished school, he said he likes to stay involved.
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Sadig led icebreakers for members, then checked on peers, offering words of encouragement to a student worried about midterms.
“A lot of students here, especially international students, suffer from impostor syndrome,” said Sadig, who graduated with a degree in business analytics last year. “BLN helps students realize they deserve to be here. It provides community.”
Senior Emari Craft agreed.
“We have a support system on campus. There’s camaraderie. There’s people you can turn to,” she said.
Craft is majoring in communications with a minor in African American studies. She said programs like these are even more important now, given the current political climate. The Florida Legislature has this year taken aim at funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programming, as well as courses on gender and race.
“The attacks on diversity hurt,” Craft said. “It’s something I think about every time I’m walking to my African history class … it just makes the connections we make through BLN more meaningful than ever.”
To learn more about the Black Leadership Network at USF, visit giving.usf.edu/BLN.