Illinois student Dexter Smith knew he wanted to study at the U. of I. since the eighth grade.
But he needed financial help to stay at Illinois, and found it through some fellow classmates.
When Smith first arrived in Urbana-Champaign from the South Side of Chicago as a freshman, he had $100 and a laptop, a
high school graduation gift from his aunt.
A senior in the Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental College’s competitive ag and bioengineering program, Smith said he’s had to pay his own way for tuition and textbooks.
That’s why receiving the “I Pay It Forward” scholarship last year meant so much to him.
The brainchild of ACES’ student advancement committee, the month-long “I Pay It Forward: Students Helping Students” campaign helps provide scholarships funded by student donations, according to Stacey Cole, ACES associate director of advancement.
Held for the first time in April 2014, the second year of the “I Pay It Forward” campaign led to more than 1,400 donors – about 90 percent of which were fellow Illinois students who donated once or more, Cole said – and raised about $20,000 in 30 days to support need-based scholarships.
“I can honestly say that it’s crazy that students are able to raise that money,” Smith said of the “I Pay It Forward” student-to-student fundraising effort. “It’s a great thing to see that a little money added up can be a scholarship for someone.”
Students held events like a kickoff dinner at the Stock Pavilion, a sand volleyball tournament and a live auction to raise the funds for fellow agriculture students.
“The funds were put to use immediately,” Cole said, adding that 20 additional students each received $1,000 toward the 2015-16 school year. “All students were at risk of having to leave college due to financial hardship.”
Donating to the “I Pay It Forward” student-to-student scholarship campaign, Cole added, means keeping one more student, like Smith, in the ACES family.
“This will really be for the kids who fall in the middle, like so many of us do,” Cole said.
The “I Pay It Forward” scholarships – based on application and individual student need – are awarded by administrators to incoming freshmen, transfer students and current students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to stay at the college.
“We have a culture of really high-quality, ‘pay-forward’ minded people,” said Illinois alumnus Preston Brown, who majored in
agricultural business at Illinois. “I think this campaign is just proving that.”
Brown helped launch the initial “I Pay It Forward” effort (he’s the face you may see on ACES’ “I Pay It Forward” campaign signs),
but he was also the chairman of Orange Krush, a student-run charitable organization that combines philanthropy and pride for
the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team.
Orange Krush members ask donors to pledge money for every 3-point shot the men’s basketball team scores during the season. The student group has donated more than $2.5 million to local and national charities over 15 Illinois basketball seasons.
“This is going to help develop leaders,” Brown said of the “I Pay It Forward” campaign. “I think that’s what (ACES) does, and this gives someone the opportunity to get in our door and become a leader in our industry.”
It’s the people Smith has met at Illinois who helped keep his head in the right place, he said, friends like Ph.D. candidate Thomas McNamara, alumnus Torrence Sorrell, a former journalism major, and his mentor Yusef Tseleq, an education graduate student, as well as others in ACES.
“I would not be where I am now if wasn’t for other students and staff at this university,” Smith said. “It was just really nice to see how the university itself can create long-term relationships with people, while your only reason for coming here is because it’s your dream school.”
To learn more about Dexter Smith and his journey at Illinois, read his story in ACES@Illinois Fall issue at go.illinois.edu/ACESIllinoisF15.