Empowering the Future: Emerson Community Scholarship students give as much as they get

by | Nov 26, 2019

Five years ago, Emerson donated $1.5 million in scholarships to UMSL. Now that commitment is paying dividends in student success.
From top left, clockwise: UMSL students Alyanna Epps, Fredrick Muikia, alumna Rachel Fantroy, Emma Norman, Maleah Lucas and Awa Konte, and many others, are recipients of the Emerson Community Scholarship, a $1.5 million commitment to UMSL scholarships from Emerson. (Photos by August Jennwein, graphic by Erin Hart)

From top left, clockwise: UMSL students Alayna Epps, Fredrick Muikia, alumna Rachel Fantroy, Emma Norman, Maleah Lucas,  Awa Konte, and many others, are recipients of the Emerson Community Scholarship, a $1.5 million commitment to UMSL scholarships from Emerson. (Photos by August Jennwein, graphic by Erin Hart)

This fall marked five years since Emerson stepped forward in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, with a commitment to help rebuild, heal, empower and change the community through the transformative power of education.

In September 2014, the global manufacturing and technology company, which is headquartered in Ferguson, announced it would donate $1.5 million for University of Missouri–St. Louis scholarships dedicated to students from north St. Louis County. The resulting Emerson Community Scholarship Program awards annual $5,000 grants to eligible UMSL students from 13 area high schools with preference given to those pursuing degrees in business or in STEM disciplines.

“Research shows a college education is influential in terms of a person’s lifetime earnings potential, career opportunities, job satisfaction and community involvement,” says Dave Rabe, Emerson vice president of corporate social responsibility. “We wanted to help make college more feasible for students with limited financial means from north St. Louis County high schools, and especially for those who are the first generation of their families to attend college. UMSL came to us with a sound proposal, and we’ve been pleased with their stewardship of our funding and to see the results.”

A big benefit of the scholarship, explains UMSL Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Alan Byrd, is that it allows students to focus on school – not just on making ends meet financially.

“St. Louis has gone through a lot over the last decade,” he says. “For students from north county, knowing they will have a scholarship waiting for them at UMSL when they complete high school does a lot for their confidence, morale and state of mind. It was a life-changing opportunity for many of these students and their families.”

Since 2015, the scholarship has benefited 64 individuals, with 39 studying business- or STEM-related majors. Of the total recipients, almost half are first-generation college students.

Here’s a look at five Emerson Scholars who have found success and more.

Awa Konte, biology and psychology

The catalyst for Muhammad Ali’s career came in the form of a stolen red bike and a policeman who encouraged him to box rather than seek revenge.

“That was his red bike moment,” Awa Konte says. “It’s when something significant or life changing happens.”

Her epiphany, though less dramatic, was no less meaningful.

That came during instructor Rob Wilson’s course “The Disease of Fear and the Fear of Disease,” which opened up Konte’s eyes to public health.

“We talked about the CDC and all these other organizations,” Konte says. “I was like, ‘Wow.’”

As a result, Konte hopes to eventually work with under- resourced communities in a public health capacity. She’s also planning to attend medical school after her expected May 2020 graduation.

For the moment, however, she’s relishing her remaining time at UMSL where she’s deeply involved on campus. One standout experience was being a peer mentor for the Office of Residential Life and Housing, which helped cover school expenses in conjunction with the Emerson Scholarship. Receiving both meant Konte didn’t have to rely on loans.

“The letter came on my birthday,” she recalls. “My sister and I opened it. I was super excited and grateful and appreciative.”

Fredrick Muikia, computer science

People have made the difference for Fredrick Muikia.

New friendships with other Kenyan immigrants helped smooth the transition to the U.S. and ninth grade at Hazelwood West High School in 2011. Then, Derrick Freeman, assistant director of Multicultural Student Services, made the difference from high school to UMSL.

“We have amazing mentors,” Muikia says. “He’s walked me through the whole journey from picking classes and professors, getting tutors and connecting with events, with groups. More than just school advice.”

Muikia found UMSL thanks to his high school guidance counselor, who encouraged him to apply for scholarships. Receiving the Emerson Community Scholarship made choosing UMSL easy.

“I was relieved and happy because I knew I wouldn’t have to work as much while I went to school at the same time,” he says. “Also, it took pressure off my parents.”

At UMSL, Muikia chose computer science, which aligns with his interest in solving problems.

“Technology is everything right now,” he says. “I didn’t want to just watch while everything is moving but to understand where all this is going, be a part of it.”

Emma Norman, business administration

Emma Norman believes in the universal power of coffee.

She’s hoping to use the beverage, and her UMSL education, to help forge bonds among neighborhoods.

“I have always had a dream of opening my own nonprofit coffee shop one day in the St. Louis area to help reunify our city,” she says. “There’s so much division, and coffee is one drink that people – no matter where you’re from or your age or race or anything – bond over. I see so much creativity in St. Louis, but there is not always space for people to cultivate it, especially those who come from lower-income areas.”

Though it was that aspiration that led Norman to business school, the Emerson Community Scholarship combined with the Opportunity Scholars Program made her choose UMSL. As a first-generation student and the second of seven siblings, those scholarships were instrumental in allowing her to attend a four-year institution.

At UMSL, Norman found marketing, which lets her incorporate creativity with her business acumen. She also discovered Campus Crusade for Christ, a student organization that has become the sophomore’s spiritual home on campus.

Norman has participated in mission trips to Guatemala and Israel and plans to do so again. She’d like to eventually use proceeds earned at her coffee shop to support full-time missionaries.

“My faith is a really big part of my life,” she says. “I want to better society and impact the world.”

Maleah Lucas, education

In high school, Maleah Lucas was worried about her future. The first-generation student applied to college in the wake of her father’s death with the knowledge that, as one of five siblings, she’d have to pay her way or not attend.

Receiving the Emerson Community Scholarship changed everything.

“I was driving, but I had to pull over,” Lucas says. “I screamed at the top of my lungs because I was so relieved. I kind of talked to my dad a little bit like, ‘OK, I don’t have to worry about this anymore.’”

Now in her sophomore year at UMSL, Lucas is excited to begin working toward a degree in education. She’s driven by her desire to do good.

“I always knew I liked helping people,” she says, explaining she’d witnessed disengaged peers not graduate. “I want to make an impact, help them enjoy school and say that it can be fun.”

She’s inspired by Multicultural Student Services coaches who helped her through some difficult moments her first year. That, along with watching her family struggle with her father’s death, has inspired Lucas to aim for a master’s degree in counseling.

That’s just one of her big dreams.

“I’m going to do my best to work toward them,” she says. “I want to make my dad proud.”

Alayna Epps, music

Alayna Epps has sung in Carnegie Hall. She’s starred in two UMSL Opera Theatre productions then represented the group for the win at the 2017-18 National Opera Association Opera Production Competition.

But fear meant those successes almost didn’t happen.

“I was afraid to go into music,” she says. “If I didn’t have my scholarships, especially from Emerson, I wouldn’t have tried to be a music major. I would have been more concerned with trying to get in and get out. It allowed me to be financially stable enough to focus on what I need.”

At first, Epps felt learning music was an uphill struggle. She says that fundamentals, such as sight-reading and theory, were only available to her as an elective growing up in Florissant.

Meeting other music majors and learning from faculty members helped Epps blossom. She hopes to give back after graduating by combining her passion for music with a love for service as a music therapist.

“I want to be able to reach out to families and spread awareness about mental health,” she says. “Finding out from UMSL that was an actual field was amazing. The more than I dived deep and got information about it, it seemed perfect fit.”

Rachel Fantroy, nursing

The human body has long fascinated Rachel Fantroy. Growing up, she’d watch National Geographic specials to get a glimpse inside.

“I took all the health classes I could,” the alumna says. “That something is always going on within us to keep us alive is really cool.”

Fantroy uses that knowledge on a daily basis as a nurse on the chemotherapy floor of Mercy Hospital. Her long-held aspiration to help people coalesced into a nursing career when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Her mother passed away shortly before Fantroy started at UMSL. Living on campus, which the Emerson Scholarship made possible, helped her through that rocky time.

“The scholarship gave me that chance to be independent and figure out life on my own, which was hard but possible,” Fantroy says. “It got me out of my comfort zone.”

The difference the nurses made for her family inspired Fantroy, and now one of her goals is to become a Spanish-English medical translator to better help others.

“I like to spend my time getting to know my patients, their backgrounds and their families,” she says. “Cancer patients are really positive even though a lot of them face a bad outcome. I think it’s important to have a good health care team that cares about you beyond your illness.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2019 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen