When Zayauna Smith was a senior at H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., she dreamed of attending college. However, she was undecided on where she would continue her education or how to find the resources necessary for tuition and other fees. Smith lives in Ward 7, which comprises some of the District's most economically challenged areas. Despite the recent influx of new, more affluent residents and innovative revitalization projects; Ward 7 continues to be plagued by escalating violence, low employment rates, and underperforming schools.
"I thought about college, but I was really unsure about where I was going and how I was going to get there," said Smith.
However, she had a life-changing experience after meeting representatives of the DC Achievers Program. Fast-forward four years later, as Smith and 11 other students from the program were among the graduates who received bachelor's degrees from Claflin University during its historic sesquicentennial commencement on Saturday, May 11.
"When representatives from the DC Achievers Program mentioned 'free money' for college, in their presentation, I knew I had to look into it," said Smith who earned bachelor's degrees in psychology and political science at Claflin. "It definitely was one of the best decisions I ever made. The program has made a tremendous impact on my life. In addition to providing me and other students on the east side of the (Anacostia) river a college education, I've established some great relationships in the program and at Claflin."
Founded in 2006, the mission of the DC Achievers Program is to improve low college graduation rates of students in Wards 7 and 8 in public and public charter schools. The nonprofit education program provides scholarships that enable students from those districts to attend college. The program also provides tutors, mentors and career counseling assistance. DC Achievers Program is funded by the College Success Foundation through a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Michael Tanner , who earned a bachelor's degree in management, only saw two options when he graduated from Friendship Collegiate Academy before he was introduced to the DC Achievers Program. He could join the military or become a police officer.
"My mom would say I was getting ready to sign my life away," Tanner said as he thought about his life before enrolling at Claflin. "I've developed a deep love for the University. Claflin has taught me more than just basic values. I've learned about true Claflin leadership."
Tanner credits his decision to attend Claflin to Antonio McFarland, assistant director of admissions at Claflin. "Mr. McFarland always projects a contagious enthusiasm and passion for the University and the students," Tanner said. "He helped me throughout my four years at Claflin. Earning this degree would have very difficult without his assistance."
Rasheed Gibbs, another graduate and member of the DC Achievers program, agreed that the invaluable assistance from administrators and faculty at Claflin contributed to his success. He also expressed his gratitude for the support provided by the DC Achievers Program and the College Success Foundation.
"It's beyond a scholarship," Gibbs said. "The people in this program have been my primary support system since I arrived. They don't just give you money and send you on your way. They really care. If they see you straying from your responsibilities, they will let you know, and bring you back."
All three students took advantage of the myriad opportunities Claflin offers that promote academic, career, and cultural development. Smith was elected Miss Sophomore, Miss Homecoming and Senior Class President while attending Claflin. She also participated in study abroad and spent five months in Dubai.
" My Claflin experiences answered a lot of questions and pointed me in the right direction," said Smith. "I grew up in Kenilworth, a pretty tough neighborhood. But, I'm extremely invested in my community, I'm extremely supportive of my community, I believe in my people in the community, and I'm proud of where I come from, but I want that to last. I want that same pride for my community that my grandmother gave to my mom, who then gave it to me, so I can give to my future children," Smith said.
Smith already has experience in the DC government through an internship at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation. She is considering returning to take on a full time position. One of her goals is to work with current Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Tanner has interviews lined up with Apple, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Best Buy. His goal is to earn a spot in a leadership development program for recent graduates.
The list of Claflin graduates in the Class of 2019 from the DC Achievers Program also includes:
- Nicholas Ballard (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Psychology major)
- Jasmine Bourn (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Psychology major)
- Syriah Carter, Friendship Collegiate Academy, Business Administration major)
- Dimontre Davis (Ballou High School, Criminal Justice)
- Qui'Era Evans (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Mass Communications major)
- Nathaniel Fields (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Business Administration and Mass Communications major)
- Keiana Joaquin (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Mass Communications major)
- Emoni King (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Psychology major)
- Antonio Tolson (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Mass Communications major)