Johnson C. Smith University student profiles
Antonio Lawrence, Class of 2010, was never a stranger to Johnson C. Smith University. The English major from Rocky Mount, N.C., often heard about the traditions, the friendships and the community of JCSU from his uncle and father, who are both alumni. His father, Antonio “Rocky” Lawrence, is a graduate of both the university and the seminary (originally on JCSU’s campus, it is now located in Atlanta as part of the Interdenominational Theological Center). “My father is a Presbyterian minister and instilled education [as a value] to congregations,” the younger Lawrence said. A tentmaker, the senior Lawrence is an attorney and is pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Goldsboro, N.C.
The college student’s serious demeanor is offset with his affection for the legacy and community of JCSU. “I have lots of memories of those who influenced me [to attend] JCSU.” Growing up, he would see many of his family members and elders at two activities that were predictable events in his family’s life: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s biennual General Assembly and Smith’s annual homecoming.
An honors student, Lawrence is a budding scholar who is a recipient of a Mellon Mays Fellowship, a program of the UNCF. The three-year program identifies students as college sophomores who are interested in pursuing doctoral education and possibly teaching at the college level as a career. One aspect of the program is a seven-week summer institute that Lawrence describes as “an academic boot camp,” which offers rigorous training in research, writing and presentation skills. “My field is ‘publish or perish,’” Lawrence said, so being able to jump-start his career as a research fellow creates more opportunities for him in publishing and presenting papers. “The program trains you in every aspect of the academy and creates critical thinkers.”
Antonio says he feels called to the ministry, like his father, and plans to enter seminary after graduation and then pursue a doctorate. JCSU “is the best place for aspiring ministers,” he said.
“I wanted to be more independent and serve the community,” remembers Jesseca Gray, class of 2010, when she recalls her criteria for considering colleges. The native of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., considered two HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and six public universities in New York.
What made her decide to attend Johnson C. Smith? “I found Smith to be a family-oriented community, and it’s a perfect fit for me,” she said. As a first-year student, Gray says she was warmly welcomed to campus by upperclassmen and women, specifically through the orientation, where she was paired with a mentor.
Student support services — the university’s tutoring programs in writing, science and math — is also a program that Gray credits with support first-time students make the transition to college life and the demands of course work. “My tutor not only [helped me] succeed my freshman year, but made sure I became a tutor,” she said. She described her mentoring role with entering students as a way for younger students to “create a bond with an upperclassmen.”
Her dedication to building a supportive campus community is equal to her passion for a career in science and medicine. A biology major, Gray completed an internship at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where her research focused on diabetes, type one. Chosen as one of four undergraduates for the internship, she would encourage others to seek similar professional experiences while in college. “I want my peers to go into internships to gain experience to prepare to present at conferences,” for graduate school, and careers, she said.
As Gray prepares to enter her senior year, she reflects on what her JCSU-education has provided her. “There’s a level of education, trust [and] independence to become leaders,” she said.
Jermaine Gassaway, class of 2010, could be described as ambitious. With majors in economics and banking and finance, the Washington, D.C., native said he chose Johnson C. Smith because Charlotte, where the university is located, is one of “the banking capitols of the world, and I felt [by attending JCSU] opportunity would follow.” He links his specific interest in JCSU to a cousin who is an alumnus and an interest in attending a historically African-American university.
As Gassaway enters his senior year, he feels internships have been an essential experience to help create career paths after graduation, saying students are encouraged to seek out professional internships while at JCSU. “I felt that if I wanted jobs,” I need to complete internships, he said. “I wanted to build relationships for later.”
Gassaway took advantage of opportunities through his academic department, as well as connecting with JCSU alumni who returned to campus to lecture to and connect with business majors. “They volunteer out of their own time and for the students’ benefit,” he said.
While real-world opportunities and connections are important to Gassaway, he lauds the university’s program for first-year students, which creates a close-knit community early in students’ experiences. “As a freshman, you have block scheduling with 20 students,” he described. “You build relationships through classes and studying all day; [you] create a support system.”
Once students enter their majors, a great benefit is having small classes. Classes are “so rigorous,” Gassaway said. “The small setting allows you to ask questions and for faculty to work with students.” With a laugh, he adds: “If there are only three people in a class [and the teacher asks a question], you have to answer.”
Rashad Smith, class of 2010, took his experience as communication arts major and hit the books last summer, that is, he hit the work world with an internship with C-SPAN’s “Book TV” program.
Originally from Rochester, New York, Smith found out about the internship with C-SPAN through a professor. “The university helps to prepare [students] for internships,” he said. Smith worked as a production assistant on “Book TV,” working with authors, assisting with interviews of authors and booking events. He is currently working on a Web broadcast show with other students.
But internships are only one part of the Smith experience. “It’s part of the bigger picture,” Smith said. “You get involved on campus,” and it leads to other opportunities you “didn’t expect.”
For example, Smith took advantage of Dr. Carter’s, JCSU new president, global education initiative, which provides students an opportunity to register on campus for passports at no cost to students. Smith looks forward to other initiatives under the new administration saying of the president, “He’s taking something good [at JCSU] and is making it great.”
Ashley Smith, a graduate of the class of 2009, visited Johnson C. Smith University’s campus several times in high school. She became familiar with the university’s campus, programs and offerings through the youth leadership program she participated in as a high school student.
One difference Smith, who hails from Greenville, South Carolina, about 100 miles from Charlotte, noticed was that her friends who attend larger universities don’t have access to the administration the way students do at JCSU. “I have that one-on-one relationship with faculty and deans,” Smith said.
President Carter, who completed his first academic year at JCSU this May, initiated weekly open office hours for students. Students have a standing block of hours in which they can make 20-minute appointments with Carter to discuss concerns as well as acknowledge personal or community accomplishments.
In addition to access to faculty and administration, Smith cites community engagement as a characteristic that makes Johnson C. Smith a stand-out liberal arts university. For Smith, a graduate of JCSU’s social work program, civic engagement and volunteering are well-suited concerns. All JCSU students are required to complete 40 hours of community service prior to graduation; honors students are required to serve more. “Many students start volunteering and continue [volunteering] after they finish their hours,” she said. Volunteering and giving back occurs within the gates of campus and extends out into Charlotte neighborhoods. “There is an emphasis on community, and students have opportunities to serve as orientation leaders, to tutor their peers and to volunteer in” Charlotte," she said.
While JCSU has long-valued a tradition of service, Dr. Carter’s presidency marks a new era with an emphasis on social research and global education — both initiatives will take students out of the classroom and bring them into the world — combining service and learning. Smith already had a taste of this when she completed an internship with the local affiliate of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization earlier in the year.
Smith says she is looking forward to attending a Master of Social Work program in the fall. “JCSU has prepared me for graduate school or for [entering] my field,” she said.