Florida A&M University can be a beacon of hope and a place for new beginnings for some, while simultaneously it can be a rude awakening for others. All that glitters isn’t gold — especially if that “gold” comes from the University Scholarship Office.
According to the Office of Institutional Research, was awarded in scholarships to students during the 2018-2019 academic year. An $11 million chunk of that scholarship money came directly from the Scholarship Office, a place of blessings for a few students and a complete dead end for many others.
“It was not my intention to be back at home going to school. I was once a biology major with a concentration in pre-med at FAMU back in 2015. FAMU had been my dream school,” said KeUndra Winfield, a third-year entrepreneurial business administration student at York Technical College in Rock Hill, SC.
One afternoon in November 2015, Winfield discovered that her Presidential Scholarship had been revoked after casually checking her email. Prior to this, her first visit to the Scholarship Office had left her nervous and fearful after seeing signs that read: “If you touch this, your scholarship will be revoked immediately,” and “if you unplug this computer, your scholarship will be terminated.”
After not receiving an email notification about additional information needed for her FAFSA, Winfield breached the scholarship contract agreement and was left with debt and no salvageable credits.
“I ended up having to move back home after my first and only semester at FAMU. I passed all of my classes, but I basically had to repeat my freshman year when I got back to South Carolina,” she said.
FAMU’s updated reads: “Student financial aid and scholarships are very important to all students and specifically to FAMU students who are first generation and/or economically disadvantaged.”
This is the reality for first generation college student Winfield, and many other disadvantaged scholars who rely on financial aid. have contributed to generations of Rattler success and produced thousands of graduates over the years.
For Spring 2015 graduate Tristin Brown, the Scholarship Office was her go-to support system throughout her matriculation at the university.
“The Scholarship Office and Mrs. [Dedra] O’Neal [were] invaluable for me while I was a student at FAMU and certainly played a large role in shaping me into the professional that I am today and setting me on the trajectory that I’m on now,” Brown said.
The recent Georgetown Law graduate and civil rights attorney had an overall positive experience with the office, receiving mentorship and academic guidance.
“Aside from supporting me in her regular duties as a scholarship advisor, [O’Neal] went above and beyond to support me by doing things like playing my radio show in the Scholarship Office when I would broadcast live, writing recommendation letters for me when I was applying to law schools,” Brown said.
Unfortunately, not every scholar has such a nurturing relationship with the Scholarship Office.
On July 11, 2017, Taylor Coffey, a George W. Gore Scholarship recipient, was told by O’Neal, the University Scholarship Program’s director, that she “didn’t try,” and that it wasn’t her fault that Coffee didn’t “try harder the first time around.”
Coffey discussed the call, which was “recorded for quality assurance,” with O’Neal’s higher-ups.
According to Coffey, William Hudson Jr., vice president of the Office of Student Affairs, called her back days later, apologized and helped her resolve her issue. However, after facing a semester filled with grief, Coffey lost her music scholarship, forcing her to search for other education options.
The former civil engineering student fell into a severe depressive state after losing her two best friends, FAMU students Alfred Motlow and Aniya Brown, , resulting in her dropping a class, which terminated her scholarship.
This was before FAMU’s current policy where extenuating circumstances protect students from this rule. Director of Bands Shelby Chipman, the professor of the class she was dropping and Coffey’s mental health counselor at the time all spoke on her behalf, helping her fight to not lose her scholarship, to no avail.
“I had no choice but to transfer schools. It was devastating. I really wish I would have seen more support from the FAMU staff,” Coffey said.
David Robinson, a senior business administration student, had his Distinguished Scholars Award revoked after participating in a fall internship with Fortune 500 company International Paper.
“For FAMU to promote innovative co-curricular activities and then to take away approximately $7,000 worth of aid for me participating shows the hypocrisy and lack of coordination among FAMU’s administration,” Robinson said. “I definitely feel as though the Scholarship Office has too stringent requirements that often push students away from FAMU.”
The Student Debt Reduction Plan shows that FAMU is trying to raise the second-year retention rate to 88 percent — an unachievable goal with underachieving faculty. The document also outlines graduation rates and shows the 2014-2018 four-year graduation rate sitting at an average of 22.5 percent, the lowest among the 12 institutions in the Florida State University System.
The 2019 Accountability Plan states “Recruiting, developing and retaining top-notch faculty is critical to sustaining FAMU’s ability to provide students with exceptional learning experiences and increase student success.”
This language does not match the reality of what many students are encountering.
Faculty who serve as gatekeepers to our futures handle students with abundant disrespect and go unpunished and seemingly unnoticed. Enough is enough.
Jelani Williams, a senior accounting student and current Distinguished Scholars Award recipient, avoids the Scholarship Office at all costs, despite O’Neal officially working from a remote location since approximately Fall 2018.
He, like many other students, has had to contact the Office of Student Affairs for assistance with a Scholarship Office grievance. Both O’Neal and Hudson declined to comment when asked about scholars’ interactions with the Scholarship Office.
“I feel that the fact that Ms. O’Neal does not work on campus shows that FAMU knows exactly how the office conducts itself, and the relationship it keeps with the students,” Williams said. “However, I truly feel that they will never do anything about it because, frankly, we as scholars are essentially paid to bring in the benchmarks, test results, and accolades that contributes to FAMU looking good on paper.”
Williams feels generally discouraged from speaking up about his experiences because O’Neal is rumored to be “unfireable” back in 2009.
Shelby Hall, senior economic student and DSA scholar, was advised by Hudson to just avoid contact with O’Neal all together and that they communicate through Melony Washington, the scholarship program assistant, who Hall describes as “pleasant and informative.”
“It got to the point where she was belittling me as a person, making me feel like I was ignorant and stupid. Then, she proceeded to say more disrespectful things to me,” said Hall, whose offense was wearing an Auburn University sweatshirt in the office.
The university’s previous Accountability Plan highlighted efforts to grow enrollment to 12,000 students by 2020. However, the Board of Governors advised, as it has for several years now, to focus on the quality of the students admitted rather than the quantity. This further reflects the apathetic, money hungry attitude of the administration.
By enabling the egregious behavior exhibited by certain faculty, the university is confirming that students are just wallets with legs. While there are faculty who are phenomenal and do exhibit “excellence with caring,” there are clearly some discrepancies in the Rattler experience.
“FAMU’s statistics are poor, that’s just the truth. So what is an easy way to combat that than to just pay high performing students to change that? They entice [prospective students] here under glorified pretenses to get their commitment in exchange for a four-year check with extreme contractual stipulations,” Williams said.
If the goal is to attract the crème de la crème of Black excellence and beyond, why does our HBCU continuously try to play us for fools and disrespect us? To truly improve the university, standards should be raised for both students and faculty, alike. Only then will this institution start to see the growth and gain the respect that it covets.