Growing up, North Charleston student Altoria Brown never dreamed of going to college.
Brown, 22, went to high school at Garrett Academy of Technology. Going to college immediately after she graduated wasn’t even on her radar — she didn’t have enough money to pay for it on her own. Instead, her plan was to go into the Air Force.
That changed in 2016, her senior year of high school, when one of Brown’s teachers suggested she apply to a newly created scholarship program, one that was formed in the wake of the Emanuel AME Church tragedy that rocked Charleston only a year prior.
She almost didn’t apply.
That year, Brown and 10 or so other Lowcountry students were selected as the inaugural group of the Rev. Pinckney Scholarship Program, established by the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina.
The scholarship aims to help young, black students obtain access to higher education via comprehensive financial, emotional and administrative support.
Four years after its founding, the first class of scholars from across Beaufort, Charleston and Jasper counties have graduated from college.
When Brown learned she’d been awarded the scholarship, it was a surreal moment. The financial support she received through the foundation, combined with various other local and state scholarships, meant she didn’t have to pay more than a few hundred dollars out of pocket each year. She did receive federal student loans to cover her remaining tuition expenses, but the combined amount she took out over the course of her four-year program totaled to less than what one year of tuition at her college costs.
“It definitely changed everything,” she said. “I was able to just live out dreams that I hadn’t even dreamed of. It just brought a lot of stuff to reality.”
In May, Brown graduated with honors from North Carolina A&T State University with a degree in criminal justice and crime scene investigation. She hopes to pursue a career in restorative justice practices, with an emphasis on youth outreach and development.
Brown was raised by a single mother in a community where crime and drug activity wasn't uncommon. Her father spent most of her childhood behind bars and was released in June 2016, the same week as her high school graduation.
“I want to work with those kids who are labeled trouble and who probably just need a mentor. Because it could have been me,” she said.
Many students in the program were the first in their family to attend or graduate from college, said Coastal Community Foundation program officer Caroline Rakar. For most students, the scholarship allowed them to attend the school of their dreams, unencumbered by fears of outstanding student debt.
Scholars were able to fund their studies via up to $10,000 in financial support each year of their college career, as long as they stayed in touch with the foundation, kept a good GPA and met other requirements.
“If you spend most of your life worrying about money and finances, you have never experienced the freedom to be open to any and all opportunities,” she said. “And so the financial relief that this program can provide ... can alleviate such a stressor, such a burden on these students that they're able to view their possibilities in a way that they never had before.”
While black students across the U.S. have made strides to catch up to their white peers in terms of college enrollment, the educational attainment gap still remains a pressing issue, the Postsecondary National Policy Institute reported last week.
Last year, 29 percent of African Americans in their mid to late 20s had received a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Education, compared with 45 percent of the white population in the same age range.
Recognizing the deep-rooted and systemic factors contributing to these kinds of troubling statistics, a group of anonymous donors wanted to do something that would create a long-lasting impact on Lowcountry communities of color by providing the necessary support black students needed to navigate the higher education system.
The Coastal Community Foundation has supported scholarships and grant programs for years, but when the Rev. Pinckney program was created, it was the first of its kind, Rakar said.
Students were given year-round support and an open line of communication with Rakar and other foundation employees. They were expected to meet in person twice annually for training and workshop sessions.
“We really got ingrained in the students' lives,” Rakar said.
Navigating the system of higher education can be challenging for young adults, especially for first-generation students. To make the process easier, the foundation provided workshops on subjects including resume-building or financial literacy.
“They had my back through whatever personal struggles, financial struggles, academic struggles, they always said, ‘I'm here for you, and if you need resources or help, here they are,” said Christian Carter, a recent graduate of the Pinckney Scholars program and N.C. State University.
Carter, who studied sociology in college and graduated summa cum laude, said the shooting at Mother Emanuel was a "horrific incident" that shaped her adolescence.
"To know that somebody could be so hateful towards people just because of the color of their skin, it cuts deep. Because the people that were in that church that night, they looked like me," she said.
She eventually became an orientation leader at the college, to show potential students of color "can come to a big university and make it."
The scholarship is named after the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a former state senator, senior pastor at Emanuel AME and one of the nine victims of the June 2015 shooting.
Eliana Pinckney, daughter of the late Rev. Pinckney, said seeing the inaugural group's accomplishments would have made her father, a longtime education advocate, proud.
“Hearing them talk and hearing them share their experiences about how passionate they are about leadership and community service and giving back, just reminds me of my father,” she said in a statement. “Something like this named after him would honestly put the biggest smile on his face.”
The Pinckney Scholarship program has grown each year since it was created. Today, there are almost 40 scholars enrolled.
“This first class of students has such a hand in shaping what currently exists, and the really strong program that we have now would not have been built in the same way or with the same strength if those students hadn't been there walking alongside us and that journey,” Rakar said.
The program's completion rate sits at 97 percent.