Over 20 kindergarteners sat at their desks, eagerly awaiting Redbird Ashley Smith’s instruction. The morning bell had just rung in the North Carolina classroom. Now, another one was going off, but this time it was in the young teacher’s head.

“I began thinking, ‘What can I do beyond teaching my students? I am the start of their educational careers, but what can I do for them beyond this work?’” Smith said.

She landed on the idea of creating a scholarship for African American students. The goal was to start a fund with the modest resources she had available as a new teacher, and let it grow into something substantial by the time her students were seniors in high school.

The first call she made was to her undergraduate alma mater out east, but the upfront financial burden was untenable: $20 to $30 thousand for a new endowment. A bit discouraged, the idea fell to the wayside for several years.

Get it started

However, Smith heard the bell again while taking Ph.D. classes at Illinois State. She chose the Leadership, Equity, and Inquiry Ph.D. in the Department of Educational Administration (EAF), a curriculum that prepares advocates for marginalized students, a trend that disproportionately affects communities of color in the U.S. Those were the exact students she wanted to support in both her professional career and the scholarship.

“The program was a catalyst for me deciding, ‘OK, I can really do this, now,’” she said.

Smith did more research, and ended up back where she started, but in a good way. She called the district where she taught prekindergarten (also where she went to K-12 school), and they told her she could start an award to be used at any university, any major, and any amount. Within weeks, the Ashley C. & Bonita M. Smith Scholarship for high school seniors at Pitt County Schools was born. The first student was awarded the funds for fall 2020.

Smith purposefully provided few limitations on the award, including what major students chose.

“When I was 18, I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but that changed at 19, and it changed at 20. I don’t want to put that limit on them in a way that makes them think, ‘I have to choose something.’ Because you’ll go to college and experience so many things that will lead you to discover what you really want to do.”

And, while students are figuring out one of the most important decisions of their life, donor dollars are huge. Smith hopes her scholarship also demonstrates to recipients (and all those who apply to it) that there is more than one way to pay for tuition.

“It’s a large financial burden to go to school, and I did not feel as though I had a choice but to accept some loans or I could not go to school. Getting one or more scholarships is a huge financial burden lifted off their shoulders, and it will keep them out of some debt, later.”

However, the scholarship is about more than money for Smith. From meeting student recipients at the district’s scholarship ceremonies to providing the value of her own mentorship, she is invested in the long game of their development, too.     

“I am interested in going along with them through their educational journey, checking in with them periodically,” she said. “I’d like to see what they need, how I can support them, how I can talk through some of what they are experiencing, and what resources I can connect them to.”

The EAF effect

She lauds two EAF faculty members for indirectly motivating her to make the scholarship happen.

First, Dr. Dianne Renn, who serves as associate chair and an associate professor in EAF, changed Smith’s perspective on what leadership looks like.

“Dr. Renn has posed the question all throughout our course work, ‘What is your leadership?’ It doesn’t have to be your typical—out in front of a podium—type of leadership. It’s your own unique thing. And, for me, I thought, ‘This scholarship is a leadership thing for me to do.’”

In addition, she said Dr. Pamela Hoff, a professor in EAF, provided a solid foundation in Black history.

“Those two things combined made me feel as though I need to do something for the community I grew up in,” Smith said.

It’s well established that education systems have not favored communities of color. Smith’s goal is to help Black students see all paths available to them and to seize opportunities.

“For me, as an educator, I think it’s important for Black students in particular to advance their education,” she said.

“I am learning about how these institutions were not made for us. It’s a fight to find a place even now to feel security and have a community. But I also understand the importance of earning postsecondary degrees.”

Smith hopes her effort can serve to support cumulative improvement.

“I want for students to learn, advance themselves, and advance their communities,” she said. “It is going to be really tough, but it is very crucial for them to find community and continue to build up Black businesses, Black educators, lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, or whatever they would like to be.”

But this will also show people after them that it is possible to do this.”

If you are interested in contributing to an existing EAF scholarship or fund, or would like to start one of your own, please contact College of Education Director of Development Wilma Bates at (309) 438-4304 or wbates@IllinoisState.edu.

Ashley Smith
Ashley Smith