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An Alpha reaches Ωmega

Seven years after joining the Elon Academy, a dozen of the first high school students to take part in the university’s college access and success program have earned their college degrees. Brittney Burnette is one of them.

Brittney Burnette, a member of Elon Academy's Alpha class, graduated from East Carolina University in May.

By Eric Townsend

Don’t think about Grandma, she told herself.

Don’t think about Dr. Long. Or Mr. Means. Or the Alphas. Don’t think about the Elon Academy and everyone who helped to get you here. You won’t get across this stage with dry eyes.

Standing among her college classmates in Minges Coliseum on the campus of East Carolina University, Brittney Burnette waited her turn to walk a platform that, statistically speaking, she had no business crossing. Raised by a single mother. Lived for a time with her grandmother. Neither parent attended college, let alone graduated. Money had been so tight that Burnette worked two jobs in high school to help pay mom’s bills.

Yet there she waited on a warm May evening, a criminal justice major already preparing for a master’s program in social work, her purple robe and decorated mortarboard a rebuke to national data and a testament to an educational opportunity that seven years earlier had welcomed her to the Elon University campus. She just didn’t want to cry. Not now. The challenge would be to keep from looking up too often to the right of the stage, where her grandmother, uncle and cousin had a perfect view of the hundreds of robed students about to graduate from ECU’s College of Human Ecology.

Brittney Burnette had beaten the odds, in no small part because of the Elon Academy.

‘Brittney had to grow up fast’

An only child born in 1991 to parents not yet out of their teens, Burnette spent her elementary school years riding bikes, writing in journals and watching syndicated television reruns of “The Golden Girls” any time her mother, a certified nursing assistant at the time, was at work in a local retirement community.
Home life was anything but ideal. Her mother was gone a lot—sometimes at work, sometimes with friends—usually leaving Burnette alone. And when mom was around, rules were lax. Her grandmother, Lena Burnette, took note of the way her daughter was raising her granddaughter. “Brittney had to grow up fast. She was always mature, but her mother was young and still in her partying days,” says the longtime teaching assistant in the Alamance-Burlington School System. “Wherever Brittney was, I’d go and get her and bring her home with me. I didn’t want Brittney around that. I’d keep her out of that environment as much as I could.”

Young children don’t always notice their family’s economic circumstances. Burnette was no exception. It wasn’t until middle school, when coaches had to pay her bill for a cheerleading team trip to a beach competition that Brittney fully appreciated her circumstances. By the middle of her studies at Williams High School in Burlington, N.C., Burnette was working part-time to help with her mother’s household expenses on top of paying for her own gas, cell phone and car insurance.

A smart child with a fiery independent streak living in an unstructured home environment, Burnette needed guidance if she wanted to go to college, an education she knew would lift her out of her circumstances. That was when both her grandmother and a teacher separately mentioned to her a new program down the road at Elon University.

The rise of the Elon Academy

Brittney Burnette getting ready to start her first summer at the Elon Academy in 2007.

College access programs of some variety have been around for half a century. The Elon Academy itself was born out of necessity. A N.C. Superior Court judge threatened in 2006 to close more than a dozen of the state’s worst-performing schools, including Hugh W. Cummings High School in Burlington, a Title I school on the eastern side of the city. Concerned for the community, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert tasked Professor Deborah Long in the School of Education to not only help the high school, but to develop a college access program that would support academically promising low-income high school students from across Alamance County.

Long, a soft-spoken, bespectacled former school teacher, was a natural fit for the project. Long was the only one of her three sisters to complete a college education, and her modest upbringing in Massachusetts mirrored the environments of future Elon Academy students. She set to work with a small team of Elon colleagues instrumental in recruiting the academy’s first scholars who would soon be known by their formal name: the Alphas.

One year later, two dozen rising sophomores representing six Alamance County high schools arrived on Elon’s campus for the first time as members of the Elon Academy. Burnette was in that group. For four weeks that summer, and for four weeks each of the subsequent two summers, the high schoolers took classes on English, math, philosophy, science and technology, personal finance and nutrition. They visited college campuses across the state. They learned about the resources available to them as academy scholars.

“More than anything it made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” Burnette says. “It was a relief to meet people who were like me on this journey.”

The program, which relies entirely on gifts and foundation grants and is offered free to the scholars and their families, was initially modeled after similar ventures at universities like Furman and Vanderbilt. Over the years, differences have emerged. Family involvement is a key element that today sets apart the Elon Academy from other college access programs. Families are partners in the process and are encouraged to make use of Elon Academy and university resources. They attend four workshops throughout the year on topics such as comparing financial aid award letters, understanding standardized tests and making the most of campus visits. “Our families are involved from the beginning,” Long says. “We really have become a model for others.”

Uphill battles

Elon Academy administrators reference several data points that paint a bleak picture for young men and women who grow up, if not in poverty, then certainly within sight of it. Nationally, just 70 percent of low-income high school students graduate from high school, and barely a third ever enroll in college.
Once there, the likelihood of obtaining a degree further diminishes. Only 14 percent of low-income high school students will graduate from college. For low-income, African-American men, that number falls to 4 percent. Today, the Elon Academy is on track to graduate from college every black male student who took part in the program and has since enrolled in higher education. “We just don’t let up,” Long says. “When we see something, we don’t ignore it. We’re relentless with scholars and after awhile, they see that and start to say, ‘They really do want me to do well.’ They know we have their best interests at heart.”

The Elon Academy today serves 144 scholars ranging in age from rising high school sophomores to those completing their collegiate studies. About half of all scholars live or lived with single parents or grandparents. A small number of parents themselves struggle with substance abuse. The newest class of scholars has the fewest financial resources of any cohort in program history. Such circumstances can derail the brightest minds—and Burnette was no exception.

In the span of a few weeks in 2008, she lost a friend and then a cousin to gunfire. The latter case remains unsolved. Burnette briefly left campus to attend her cousin’s funeral just days after the Elon Academy program started that June, and she struggled for much of the next year to find closure. It wasn’t until her final summer on campus with the academy that Burnette discovered a possible calling to keep other children from similar fates.

“Is Justice Blind?” was a new course in the summer of 2009 when Sandra Reid, a faculty member in the university’s Department of Human Service Studies and a former counselor in the state’s juvenile justice system, taught several Elon Academy scholars about the way race and gender affect the American criminal justice system. “That was the first time I was able to see actual examples of court cases and justice issues,” Burnette says. “It was something I just couldn’t believe, that people were mistreated because of race. And it hurt a lot.”

The loss of her friend and cousin, coupled with her introduction to the criminal justice system in Reid’s class, made an impact. “She fell apart and I think she grew up a lot because of it, even verbalizing that their lives would have been different if they had grown up in another environment,” Long says. “She became much more studious and began to realize that not only did she want to make a difference in this world, that she actually could.”

Elon Academy leaders and her high school teachers also noticed a difference in a girl nearly removed from the program for sneaking a cell phone onto campus and arguing with academy staff once discovered. Her attitude mellowed. She focused more in class. Mark Clapp, an Elon Academy summer instructor who taught several finance classes to Burnette at Williams High School, recalls how colleagues no longer asked him to counsel Burnette about her defiance in the face of constructive criticism. “The Elon Academy preaches to students what they need to do to be successful, from where you should sit in the classroom to contacting your professors to teaching study skills,” Clapp says. “So many times in high school it’s ‘How little can I do to get by.’ Here, it’s ‘What can I do to take this to the next level.’ Elon Academy kids learn life isn’t about just getting by, that it’s about maximizing your potential.”

Succeeding in college

Brittney Burnette returned to Elon in June to serve as an Elon Academy mentor for the third consecutive summer.

Emerging evidence shows college “access” isn’t enough for the students participating in programs such as the Elon Academy. Once on a college campus, “success” becomes just as critical, and the academy’s mission has evolved to account for that. The same fall the Alphas headed for college, academy faculty and staff were scheduling campus visits, providing emergency funding and staying in touch with families in an effort to ensure college success.

Darris Means ’05 served the Elon Academy for eight summers as associate director before leaving the program this summer to join the University of Georgia faculty. Means and other staff members tried to visit scholars at least once a year, and today the team handles as many as a half dozen calls each week from scholars calling about family emergencies, college finances, questions about transfers and, on rare occasion, advice for handling campus judicial proceedings.

Through their interactions, Burnette developed a strong relationship with Means. He noticed Burnette’s early struggles at East Carolina and urged her to get involved on campus. Many first-generation or low-income students don’t always take part in extracurricular activities because of finances or perceived lack of time, Means says, a decision that can be costly. Campus involvement reduces the probability of academic failure or the desire to transfer, which often delays graduation and can add to student loan debt. “Students involved on campus increase their commitment to a college or university,” he adds. “It also is important in promoting resilience and attention. When you’re committed to something, it makes you want to stay in that place.”

Burnette soon joined a leadership honor society and found part-time work calling ECU alumni to request donations. Her renewed approach to academics impressed Peggy Newsome, an academic adviser in ECU’s College of Human Ecology. Many students only appear in Newsome’s office twice each year, prior to class registration for upcoming fall or spring semesters. Not Burnette. “She would come in multiple times,” Newsome says. “She was determined to graduate in four years, and I really appreciated that she cared about the education she was going to get.”

None of this surprises Burnette’s grandmother. “She understood that she was there for a purpose,” Lena Burnette says. “College is fun, yes, but Brittney had a plan.”

She was not alone. Eleven members of the Alpha Class received their college degrees this year from eight schools: Elon University, ECU, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, N.C. A&T State University, UNC-Pembroke, Salem College and Saint Augustine’s College. Four more scholars from the original cohort are on track to graduate in coming years.

Before starting her master’s program in social work this fall at ECU, Burnette returned to Elon in June to mentor Elon Academy high school students. It was her third consecutive summer on Elon’s campus and she’s found a natural home working with Reid as a teaching assistant in “Is Justice Blind?” Burnette and Reid forged an immediate connection in 2013, in part because of the national attention paid to the George Zimmerman trial in Florida where the former neighborhood watch volunteer was on trial for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. “It affected her a lot. The night the verdict came in, she texted me and was really upset,” Reid recalls. “She and I went back and forth with why it happened and her saying ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

It also cemented for Burnette the idea of working in the juvenile justice system after she completes her graduate work. “Your actions really follow you, no matter what it is that you do,” she says. “They follow you forever. And more than anything, with children, I’ve learned they’re not half as bad as they appear to be. They just need attention and someone who really, really cares, and is willing to motivate them; someone to keep pushing them and not give up on them.”

Beginning her future

Brittney Burnette and her grandmother, Lena.

At 5:47 p.m. on Friday, May 9, Brittney ShaKayla Burnette heard her name over the sound system in Minges Coliseum on the ECU campus. She looked above the stage to see her grandmother’s smile. It took her less than a minute to ascend the platform steps, shake hands with Judy Siguaw, dean of the College of Human Ecology, and receive further down the stage a small piece of paper tied with red ribbon. The paper was a welcome letter from the ECU alumni association. Burnette’s official diploma would eventually arrive by mail.

On the way back to her seat, Burnette shook hands with several professors. Fifteen minutes later, Siguaw offered a final suggestion to close the ceremony. “Let’s not forget the people who helped you get here,” she told the hundreds of newly minted college graduates gathered before her. “Let’s give them a round of applause.”

Burnette had made it. She was done. Only she wasn’t. Her master’s program starts soon, and though she isn’t exactly sure where her career will take her, she plans to work with kids. Her mentors think Burnette won’t end her formal education with a master’s degree, that she’ll one day earn a doctorate and maybe even join the faculty of a college or university.

Burnette joined thousands of people pouring from the building; almost everyone held cell phones to their ears to find loved ones. She called her uncle to locate her family. Walking through the crowd, the first familiar face she spotted was a woman wearing a purple cardigan and sterling silver jewelry accented with purple stones—the same color as Burnette’s graduation gown.

Brittney flashed a smile as she wrapped her arms around her grandmother, the woman who always told her she could do better. Neither had dry eyes and that was all right. She had already crossed the stage.

Meet the Alphas

Members of the Elon Academy's Alpha Class in 2007.

Brittney Burnette is one of 144 scholars who have taken part in the Elon Academy to date and one of 11 members of the Alpha Class who received their college diplomas this year. They are:

  • Sentrell Allen— anthropology, Elon University
  • Stacey Crutchfield— political science, Elon University
  • Jessica Eller— strategic communications, Elon University
  • Frank Garcia— business administration, Elon University
  • Constanza Johnson— international and comparative politics with a minor in sustainable development, Appalachian State University
  • Destinee Lewis— psychology, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke
  • Riana McCollum— psychology, North Carolina A&T State University
  • Shelby Oldham— religion, Salem College
  • Sarah Rawls— Asian studies (Japanese) with a minor in Hispanic studies, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Jaron Torain— business administration with a property management concentration, Saint Augustine’s College

Four scholars, including Burnette, plan to attend graduate school in areas of communication or social work. Future plans will take one scholar to Boston to work in the public schools for the nonprofit City Year. Another has joined AmeriCorps and will work for North Carolina Campus Compact. Another has been hired by a Florida real estate firm and will manage commercial properties.

Keren Rivas,
8/7/2014 8:45 AM