When Bell It software company owner Jerry Bell, Integral Energy CEO Anddrikk Frazier and other members founded the University of South Florida Black Leadership Network in 2016, they sought to enhance education and leadership opportunities for African-American students in the USF System through endowed scholarships and programmatic initiatives.
The membership has since created and funded a number of scholarships for students, but it realized a major breakthrough on Thursday when the Helios Education Foundation awarded the network a $2.1 million grant to benefit underrepresented students.
"We've partnered with Helios for years, but this is special because it's the very first time they have focused on black students," said USF System president Judy Genshaft, who continuously raved about the university's preeminent status at the event.
The majority of the reward will go towards annually supporting scholarships for 40 African-American students, while $100,000 will address immediate needs for scholarships, mentoring and leadership skills programming to help students graduate faster, leave the university with less debt and better prepare them for the job market.
The scholarship relieves a major financial burden for several students and their families including freshmen Kenysha Johnson and Justice Powe, whose families worried how they would afford college. Johnson comes from a home of disabled parents who are both unable to work and now no longer receive compensation for her since she is 18. This scholarship allows her to focus on her studies to be a music teacher rather than worry about her parents.
" I just have this huge weight lifted off my back," Johnson said after the presentation at the USF's Gibbons Alumni Center. "I have less things to worry about financially and I have a community to lean on. They're saying that my dreams matter, so just doing that and giving me the financial means to graduate is incredible."
Powe, 18, noted that her mom holds three degrees but struggles with more than $200,000 of student loan debt. She worried she would endure the same thing. Her mom also recently had a baby and took a pay cut on maternity leave, so when she found out she received the scholarship she cried in relief.
"I was very doubtful because I had applied for so many scholarships and didn't get them, but I got that email and it was just like wow," she said.
"Bright Futures only covered so much. I was so worried about it and I knew my mom was, but she didn't want to show it so that took a lot off of her."
Helios Foundation has partnered with USF since 2007 awarding more than $15 million in scholarship endowments focusing particularly on diversity and first-generation, minority and underrepresented students with programs such as the Latino Scholarship Program and the Diversity Scholarship Program.
However, this award is distinct, and Genshaft said it helps answer those who worry the school's new preeminent status and increasing admission standards will disproportionately impact African-Americans and minorities.
"This sends a message that our door is open for everyone in the community and shows that USF has proven black student success to be trusted with such a large grant," Genshaft said.
The Education Trust recognized USF as Florida's top school in Florida and the nation's sixth best for black student success. The university has also closed its graduation rate gap regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
"This is what's changing lives here in the Tampa Bay area and we're excited to be a part of this process," said Vince Roig, Helios Education Foundation Founding Chairman.
"More than just a financial investor, Helios is a community investor. We know that investment in Tampa Bay students is an investment in our region, our state and our country."
Bell also shared his excitement on the grant and the progression of the Black Leadership Network.
"For African-American kids who otherwise wouldn't have been able to stay in college, it will change their lives," he said. "It could also provide them with the option not to work and instead take advantage of other opportunities like the study abroad program or a summer internship that is in their field but doesn't pay.
"At the end of the day, that resume looks a lot better and they can graduate with much less debt."
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