RIVERVIEW — A 46-year-old father of three and a 30-year-old survivor of Hurricane Katrina were among the HOPE scholars and Collegiate 100 club members honored at a Hillsborough Community College awards and graduation ceremony last month.
“They have exceeded expectations,” said Joan B. Holmes, who oversees equity and special programs for the college, of the 27 graduates noted in the program for the April 21 ceremony at The Regent in Riverview.
“They all did an exceptional job in college and in the community,” Holmes said of the students representing the HCC campuses: Brandon, Dale Mabry, Ybor City, Plant City and SouthShore. “These students were able to defeat the odds, and I’m really proud of them.”
The odds for academic success couldn’t have been more stacked against Benjamin Thomas, who said he moved from Louisiana to Tampa after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
“We lost everything and everyone,” he said. “All I have left is my mother, my sister and my brother. We were told if we came to Tampa, Florida, we’d get assistance. But we didn’t get the assistance everybody thought we got. We were homeless for three years.”
Back in Louisiana, Thomas had dropped out of high school to help care for his ailing mother, aided by a job in hospitality.
“I thought it was sufficient until I lost everything and had to move,” he said of his life after Katrina. “In Florida I had to start all over again and that’s when I realized the value of an education.”
Thomas has an associate degree in allied health and is two semesters shy of his bachelor degree in microbiology from the University of South Florida. Thomas said he took advantage of the “determination program,” which allowed for cross-enrollment at the college and university.
Collegiate 100 is an auxiliary program of 100 Black Men of America, which provides leadership and mentoring opportunities to male and female students.
Well-established in four-year universities, “the HCC program is the first Collegiate 100 program at a junior college,” said Barbara Cockfield, who oversees the program for HCC. “Hillsborough Community College has invested very heavily in the success of these kids.”
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Brian K. Allen, a financial adviser with Q Street Financial Services in Tampa and a member of 100 Black Men of Tampa said the organization is for students who overcome great challenges and often face a lack of services and opportunities.
Collegiate 100 “represents the investment the college is making in the success of these kids, and in a word, that’s huge,” Allen said.
“It will pay benefits down the road, for these kids themselves and, when they become productive, for the communities they live in and for the space we all occupy.”
Java Royal is a case in point: a “first-generation” graduate with a 3.2 GPA and an associate degree in business administration.
“I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college,” said Royal, a HOPE scholar and president of Collegiate 100 at HCC’s Ybor City campus. “It makes me feel proud and a little nervous because I’m the one to carry the load,” he added, “but it feels great.”
Holmes said the HOPE scholarship program targets black and Latino males “who have been in the lower rung of enrolling in college and of completing college.”
“Since the HOPE program started in 2010,” she added, “we have graduated 59 black and Latino males, all with a 3.0 or better GPA and all accepted into a four-year university, with 18 going on for graduate study.”
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Collegiate 100 members gave high praise to the program and its objectives and to HCC’s policy for students who take traditional or nontraditional routes from high school to a college campus.
“After doing 23 years in the military I decided to come back and go to school to show my kids I could still do it after all these years,” said 46-year-old Maurice Hartage, of Riverview, who served as vice president of Collegiate 100 at HCC’s SouthShore campus.
“It feels great. I have three kids and I’m setting the bar for them, although two of the three kids are already at the University of South Florida working on their bachelor’s degrees, and one son is at Riverview High School, taking dual-enrollment classes at HCC.”
Cameel Williams, 25, described herself as a “born-again student” after being out of school for seven years and raising kids.
“Then things started to crumble,” added the graduate, who earned an associate degree in allied health. “You need to build yourself back up on a more solid foundation, and I felt my education was the best way to go about it.”