- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Story

Graduating from a prestigious university has always been a part of my plan. In fact, the idea of not pursuing higher education never crossed my mind. Both of my parents graduated from Tuskegee University, developing successful careers in veterinary medicine and physical therapy over the past 25 years. As a black woman raised in a small suburban town in upstate New York, who graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, I expected to journey through college as effortlessly as high school.

In the winter of 2012, I was admitted to the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. All of my hard work had paid off, bringing my dreams of becoming the next Tamron Hall closer to fruition. Although my career aspirations have shifted in the past three and a half years, my love for education and my desire to get my degree never wavered. Despite my desire to learn, grow and impact the university, I had to face the reality of being an out-of-state student.

Since being admitted to the university, I’ve done everything I could to put myself ahead financially. I became a resident assistant to reduce living expenses, worked multiple internships and jobs, applied to countless scholarship and stipend opportunities. But a variety of obstacles funding my education prevented me from registering on time every single semester. From issues acquiring student loans to unexpected changes in financial contributions, each financial hindrance impacted both my academic performance and morale.

Despite the honor society inductions, the hours of community service, multiple organizational leadership positions — I struggled. I struggled to find balance, and that struggle took a toll on my spirit. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet wonderful faculty and staff members who opened doors and showed me resources I would have never been able to find myself. I cannot thank them enough for their assistance and extreme dedication to helping me succeed here at Maryland. Unfortunately, not every student has that support system. Some students don’t even know where to begin looking for help, or more importantly, how to reach out once help is identified.

The Gift of Giving Gala

Ironically, experiencing so much financial adversity during my academic journey has blessed me in more ways than imaginable. Helping students, especially minority students, in similar situations became one of my biggest passions. In November of 2015, over ten student organizations and a team of dedicated students worked with faculty to bring one of the biggest black networking events in the history of the University of Maryland to fruition.

The event’s title, The Gift of Giving Gala, was chosen to emphasize the true importance of giving back to scholarship programs and academic causes. The purpose of the gala was twofold; first, to bring Maryland alumni and current students together for a night of networking, music, laughter and conversation. Our goal was to provide an organic and professional atmosphere for students and alumni to foster and develop meaningful professional and personal connections. The second purpose of the event was to serve as the official launch of the university’s Student Success Emergency Scholarship Fund, a fund developed specifically to keep students who are in financial distress enrolled at the university.

Keynote speaker and University of Maryland alumnus Maurice Nick, spoke to an alumni center of young men and women exemplifying black excellence on the importance of giving back, “I’m saying that we have to also give to other organizations. Causes like this, which we are starting tonight. Yes, we are Terps but do not forget about our HBCU’s.”

Throughout his speech he encouraged students and alumni to remember the importance and value of historically black colleges and universities to our society, and community as a black collective, “The only thing Harvard has on Howard is a 36.4 billion dollar endowment.”

His words struck a chord with not only me, but with the audience of around 300 attendees. The overwhelming success of the Giving Gala inspired students involved with its production to work harder, and inspired others to join the effort of bettering our university, making resources more accessible for minority students in College Park.

Tony Randall, senior manager of the Student Success Initiative at UMD, spent countless hours coordinating with the student organizers to plan and execute the inaugural gala. He spoke of the success of the campus organizations that began event collaborating in the spring of 2015, “We just found out about two weeks ago, that the black graduation rate for the first time on this campus’ history broke 80 percent.”

Six years ago, 74.2 percent of black students at the University of Maryland graduated over the course of six years. As of fall 2015, the black graduation rate at the University of Maryland over six years stands at 80.9 percent. To some, an increase of just over 6 percent may not seem like the biggest breakthrough. White students at Maryland are graduating at 86.4 percent.

There are so many factors and influences that can make or break a student’s college career. Black students face more of these challenges on a day to day. From lack of representation, to social seclusion, to racial profiling, to classroom stigmas, persistent stress and financial difficulties, often times it seems the reasons to drop out of school outweigh the reasons to stay the course. The Gift of Giving Gala reminded us black students of how valuable we truly are, how important we are to society, and why graduation is the ultimate goal.

Mr. Randall provided examples of students who came to him in need of only a few hundred dollars to stay in school for the remainder of the semester. The scholarship fund created from the event’s proceeds will go toward helping a few more minority students stay the course when the odds are stacked against them — and that makes it all worth it.

Alexandra Givan is president of UMSuccess.

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