Golden LEAF scholarships put ECU students on path to success

ECU student Jameel ‘Jay’ Shaheed, center, talks with Golden LEAF President Scott Hamilton and ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers.

Conversation, connections and networking brought East Carolina University scholars and faculty together with Golden LEAF Foundation leadership Feb. 6 to celebrate a long-time scholarship program.

This year’s Golden LEAF Scholars cohort includes 78 current ECU students. The foundation provides 215 scholarships a year — covering the cost of attendance up to $3,500 per year — for students from rural and economically distressed communities to attend North Carolina colleges and universities.

Investing in students and supporting rural communities makes Golden LEAF and ECU closely aligned partners. Chancellor Philip Rogers said the university and the foundation have a shared future-focused vision dedicated to student success and advancing social and economic progress in the region.

“Golden LEAF is that foundational partner for helping us achieve (our) goals,” Rogers said. “You’ve been standing beside us every step of the way.”

Rogers said the Golden LEAF Scholarship Program is the most critical component and a leading example of the aligned visions of the university and the foundation. The scholarship investment helps ECU prepare students for success and readies them to strengthen their rural communities.

“We’re both focused on the future, we’re both focused on innovation, and we are focused on advancing educational opportunities for our students,” Rogers said. “We’re focused on helping students graduate and go out and pursue careers that make a difference in the future of our state.”

Making connections

One scholar making connections with other students and Golden LEAF alumni was Bridget Smith-Butler from Chocowinity. Though many of the students matched the ages of her four children, Smith-Butler listened and learned about the experiences of everyone in her new scholarship cohort.

“It means everything to me to have this scholarship,” she said. “It’s enabled me to be able to come to ECU.”

Smith-Butler is working toward a degree in social work and hopes to work in a hospital setting in maternal and child health after she graduates in 2025. She earned an associate’s degree at Beaufort County Community College (BCCC) before coming to ECU.

She was inspired by her daughter to apply for a Golden LEAF scholarship. Her daughter also graduated from BCCC and earned a Golden LEAF scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smith-Butler said she is working to encourage her youngest son to follow their lead and apply for a Golden LEAF scholarship, as well.

Smith-Butler said she is enjoying her experience at ECU. Her professors and getting to know more students are helping her to come out of her shell. “It’s been great to see how far I’ve come, to do well in my classes and be on a path to graduate,” she said.

Golden LEAF alumnae Robynique Willis-Brown ’18 ’19 was one of the connections Smith-Butler made during the event. Willis-Brown, who works as a social worker at ECU Health, provided inspiration for current scholars and encouraged them to make the most of their scholarship and the opportunities they have at ECU.

To promote further networking, attendees participated in an icebreaker, which ensured everyone got to meet at least one scholar, a Golden LEAF representative and an ECU faculty member. Participants learned about other scholars who attended community college before applying to ECU, what course of study they are pursuing, and light-hearted trivia about the fictional place they would like to visit and what superpower they wished they had.

Pitt County native Ismyia Fornville, attending her second Golden LEAF reception, said it was great meeting other scholars and learning about their backgrounds and majors. She and a small group of scholars decided to create a group chat to stay connected.

Fornville also had the opportunity to meet and share her aspirations – of attending medical school to become a radiologist – with Dr. Herb Garrison, professor of emergency medicine and associate dean for graduate medical education at the Brody School of Medicine.

Garrison talked with Fornville about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in radiology and her plans for medical school. He told Fornville that the secret to medical school is perseverance. If it is her dream to pursue medical school, she needed to be determined, have a good GPA, and if she didn’t get in the first time to keep trying, to learn what she needed to improve and re-apply.

“Receiving this advice was great,” she said. “It let me know that I shouldn’t just quit if I don’t get in my first time. I should continue to work and re-apply.”

Rural impact

Lawrence Davenport, an original Golden LEAF board member, said he enjoyed the opportunity to network and connect with the students. Meeting the students is proof for Davenport that the scholarship program is “right on track.”

“It means a lot to be able to meet these students,” he said. “They’re the future, they’re going to be the next leaders.”

Golden LEAF President Scott T. Hamilton said his favorite part of the foundation’s scholarship program is meeting the students during campus programs and gatherings. He said ECU created the first scholars’ gathering and set a benchmark for Golden LEAF scholarship events across the state.

The scholarship program was one of the first initiatives the Golden LEAF Foundation Board approved as part of its long-term strategy to grow rural North Carolina and help it continue to prosper.

“The Golden LEAF Board established the scholarship program 25 years ago with the goal for Golden LEAF scholars to gain the talent, knowledge, and skills necessary to help North Carolina’s rural communities thrive by returning home to live, work, and raise families,” said Hamilton. “This year, we’re getting ready to celebrate the 25th year of Golden LEAF, and we are looking forward to seeing how students like you – over the next 25 years – will grow and impact rural North Carolina.”

Golden LEAF also has invested in other ECU programs, including a $1.9 million grant for ECU’s Eastern Region Pharma Center, support for the ECU Family Medicine Center, and a grant that supported the creation of RISE 29, an innovation and entrepreneurship program aimed at rural economic prosperity.

The Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to receive a portion of North Carolina’s funding received from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers. The Golden LEAF works to increase economic opportunity in North Carolina’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities. To date, the foundation has awarded more than $60 million to this scholarship program and helped more than 29,000 students statewide.