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U.S. Rep. Sewell: ‘Exploring my options’ on 2022 U.S. Senate run — ‘I disagree’ we cannot turn Alabama blue like we did Georgia

U.S. Rep. Sewell: ‘Exploring my options’ on 2022 U.S. Senate run – ‘I disagree’ we cannot turn Alabama blue like we did Georgia – Yellowhammer News | Yellowhammer News

U.S. Rep. Sewell: ‘Exploring my options’ on 2022 U.S. Senate run — ‘I disagree’ we cannot turn Alabama blue like we did Georgia

The 2020 election cycle in Georgia, which saw the state go for Joe Biden in the presidential election and flip two U.S. Senate seats from red to blue, has some looking across the border to the west, wondering if the same thing is possible in Alabama.

With U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) announcing he will not seek a seventh term in the U.S. Senate, there has been full-on speculation as to who might run for the seat on the Republican side. However, there seems to have been little discussion about who might lead the Democrats on the ballot in the 2022 general election.

During an appearance Saturday on MSNBC’s “The Cross Connection,” U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham) was asked about the possibility that she might seek the Democrat nod for U.S. Senate in 2022. Sewell was noncommittal on a run but acknowledged it was something she would “look very closely at.”

“I think the reality is exactly right — black women helped deliver Biden to the White House,” she said. “We helped deliver Senator Doug Jones to the Senate, and I do believe we deserve a seat at the table. Obviously, we’ll look very closely at it. I have the opportunity to represent my home district — Selma, Alabama, Montgomery, Birmingham — the Civil Rights District. It is the honor of a lifetime for me. I’ve worked hard over the last 10 years, and here’s what I know for sure — black women need a seat at the table. We’ve earned that right, and we are obviously missing that seat in the Senate. And it is going to be critically important that we have a seat at the table and we help set the agenda.”

“I look forward to exploring my options when it comes to that, but I want you to know that I am committed to making sure we represent Alabama — all of Alabamians in the United States House of Representatives, and I look forward to doing that.”

Host Tiffany Cross pressed Sewell on the possibility, only to be told by Sewell that she was “singularly focused” on her district but planned to explore options while acknowledging the politics in neighboring Georgia were something to consider.

“I disagree with the premise that somehow Alabama is not — we cannot turn Alabama blue like we did Georgia,” she said. “The reality is we can expand the electorate. The reality is African-American communities, both men and women, really did deliver that win for Doug Jones. And I know it is a steep climb, but I also know we are a resilient people — and African-American women, if anyone can do it, we can. And so, I will be looking at the opportunities in Alabama. But at the same time, I am singularly focused on delivering for the people I represent now in Alabama’s seventh congressional district. It is so important that we get that COVID relief, that we crush the virus, that we get an increase in minimum wage, that we get food security and deal with the nutrition assistance that is so needed.”

“But look, politics is politics,” Sewell added. “But I know the South is rising again, and we cannot, cannot leave us behind.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

Flowers: Alabama will miss Richard Shelby immensely

In only 21 short months, at the close of 2022, Alabama will lose the greatest senator in our state’s history. Those of us who are political historians will acknowledge Richard Shelby as Alabama’s most pronounced political emissary in Washington.

In my 2015 book, “Six Decades of Alabama Political History,” I have a chapter titled “Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators,” which features Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Richard Shelby. Lister Hill and John Sparkman were icons but, if I were writing that chapter today, Richard Shelby would be alone as the premier “Giant of Alabama.”

Hill served in the Senate for 30 years and Sparkman for 32 years. Shelby eclipsed Sparkman’s record two years ago, and at the end of his term, will set the bar at 36 years. It should also be noted that Senators Shelby, Hill and Sparkman served nearly a decade or more in the U.S. House of Representatives. Senator Shelby is now in his 43rd year in Washington.

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Seniority is king and paramount in assessing power under the Capitol dome. However, what you do with that seniority is what makes one great. The average voter and citizen of our beloved state do not comprehend the magnitude of the federal largesse that Richard Shelby has brought home to the Heart of Dixie. His strength, power and resolve have resulted in countless improvements to every corner of our state. It would take volumes and annals to chronicle the federal dollars that Shelby has funneled to Alabama throughout his career.

Beginning with the coastal area of Mobile and the Docks, to the Wiregrass and Fort Rucker, to Montgomery’s Maxwell and Gunter; to UAB in Birmingham, and finally Shelby’s impact on the growth and prosperity of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, are incomprehensible. Folks, when you combine all of the aforementioned economic engines, we are not talking about a couple million extra federal dollars but more like hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

Shelby has been the savior of these centers of economic growth and employment in our state. The two most important, UAB and Redstone Arsenal, owe their growth and prosperity to Shelby’s ability to bring home the bacon.

He has had the most profound impact over the last few years as chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. He very adroitly kept in conjunction the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations. If you do not think defense dollars are important to Alabamians, simply ask the folks in the Wiregrass and Montgomery’s River Region what Ft. Rucker and Maxwell/Gunter mean to them. Also, Huntsville would be a sleepy little cotton town if it were not for the Redstone Arsenal.

While Shelby was not in the U.S. Senate when these facilities were placed in Alabama, you can bet your bottom dollar that they have flourished, prospered, and more than likely survived because of Richard Shelby.

Senator Shelby and I have been friends for over 35 years. I was a part of his inaugural 1986 triumphant election to the Senate. To know him personally is to see a man that you instantly recognize as a once-in-a-lifetime giant. He is extremely witty and personable with a keen lawyer’s mind that analyzes your words as soon as they come out of your mouth. Indeed, he was a brilliant and very successful lawyer before entering Congress. If he had not gone into politics, he could have become a billionaire as a Wall Street lawyer.

As Shelby eloquently said in his retirement statement, there is a time for every season. He will be 87 in May of this year and 88 at the end of this term. He deserves some private years. He enjoys time with his wife and best friend of over 60 years, Annette. He will enjoy being at home in his beloved Tuscaloosa and hunting occasionally with his buddies, Joe Perkins and Judge Coogler. Maybe he will have time to reminisce with some of us who like to share old Alabama political stories.

In closing, there will be plenty of time to observe the fray that will be developing to follow the legend of Richard Shelby, but no one will ever fill his shoes. As I traversed the state doing television interviews the day of Shelby’s announcement, I became melancholy and almost tearful for Alabama’s sake.

While driving between Montgomery and Birmingham, I had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lady who has been Shelby’s real chief of staff, confidant and gatekeeper his entire career in Congress. She very aptly told me to tell the people of Alabama that whoever follows Shelby, even if brilliant, will be 20 years in waiting and learning before they will be able to wield any power. She is correct. Seniority is king in Washington.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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Alabama attorney Fred Gray looks back on life of ‘destroying everything segregated’

Few people can say they knew Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks when that internationally celebrated pair were average citizens.

Fred Gray can.

The 90-year-old legendary civil rights lawyer has known most of the most-respected figures in the modern movement toward equality for Blacks. He represented Parks and King, persuading judges to make rulings that helped shape both of their lives. Gray’s courtroom victories led to many of the most important gains in reducing the vast disparity in rights that was a reality in America when he opened his first law office in Montgomery.

“Fred Gray is truly one of the giants of not only the legal profession, but of American history,” said Patricia Lee Refo, president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association. “He is the quintessential example of the great social good which a lawyer can accomplish.”

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In 1954, Parks helped Gray set up his small headquarters at 113 Monroe St. and within a year he became friends with King. Together, the trio were in the front row of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in 1956 brought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation on public buses. Four years later, Gray convinced an all-white jury to acquit King on trumped-up tax evasion charges.

Over the next decades, Gray would win cases that affirmed the one person, one vote principle; ensured protection for marchers from Selma to Montgomery; integrated the University of Alabama, Auburn University and all Alabama public educational institutions; brought equal rights and protections to college students; ended systematic exclusion of Blacks from juries; integrated public parks; and allowed the NAACP to operate in the state. King called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

“He’s one of my heroes,” said Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Wayne Flynt. “I got to know him pretty well when I was writing ‘Alabama in the Twentieth Century,’ and I interviewed him, and I really, really admire him.”

Flynt said Gray was never intimidated in the courtroom facing white lawyers, judges and witnesses during civil rights cases. Despite efforts by whites to embarrass Gray, the Montgomery attorney “in an age of apartheid had more bone in his little finger than almost anyone I’ve ever known in their entire backbone,” Flynt said.

“His attitude was not to confront you in the sense that most whites understand,” said Flynt, Auburn University professor emeritus of history. “He was not going to raise his voice and he was not going to fling out profanities and he was not going to stomp his foot but what he was going to do is demand that you respect him as your equal.”

Gray remains sharp as a tack, continuing to work as an attorney for the 67th consecutive year, going into his Tuskegee office each day and tackling cases as if he were beginning his career. He doesn’t seek clients but is constantly asked to provide legal expertise. He hasn’t had a vacation in years, unless one counts when he was keynote speaker at conventions in places where people vacation.

Setting out as a 24-year-old to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” Gray, by most any measuring stick, has accomplished his lifelong goal. Yet, he admits, the road to freedom for Black Americans is still far from being a freeway.

“I think that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in almost every aspect of American life,” Gray said. “I’ve been able, with a lot of help along the way, to be instrumental to do some of that. However, the struggle for equal justice continues.”

Gray said he was alarmed at incidents that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year. His concerns were amplified by the “mob that went up to the Capitol” on Jan. 6. He said the nation has made obvious progress since Blacks were brought in chains to America 400 years ago but that two major problems remain.

“Racism is not over; we don’t live on a level playing field,” he said. “Secondly, inequality still exists. I don’t care what aspect you take, whether it’s in housing, whether it’s in employment, or whether it’s in health care or even the distribution of resources, they are not equal. … This country, up until now, has never faced the racism and the inequality questions. We just haven’t faced it.”

Born Dec. 13, 1930, one year into the Great Depression, it didn’t take Gray long to realize his predicament as a Black person on the poor side of Montgomery. His father, Abraham, died when Gray was 2, leaving Nancy Gray with five children and little income. His mother’s formal education ended after the fifth or sixth grade, but she relied on a religious upbringing to cope. She worked as a “domestic” in the homes of white people. Growing up on West Jeff Davis Avenue, Gray knew nothing about the legal profession.

“When I was coming along as a child in the ’30s and the early ’40s, there were only about two professions that Black young men or boys on my side of town could do that were respectable positions; that would be a preacher or a teacher,” he said. “And I decided that I would be both.”

The Grays regularly attended Holt Street Church of Christ, which was two blocks from where Rosa Parks lived and in the same area where the bus boycott began. Fred Gray “used to baptize cats and dogs” in his neighborhood, which caught the attention of his preacher, Sutton Johnson. The Holt Street religious leader recommended to Mrs. Gray that 12-year-old Fred be enrolled in the National Christian Institute boarding school in Nashville, Tennessee. Gray would become a favorite of the school president, Marshall Keeble, who was a pioneer Black preacher nationally in the Church of Christ.

“I was actually pretty good at preaching, because he took me around at that early age … to all these churches in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and we would preach and we would end up recruiting students,” Gray said.

He graduated in 1948, returned to Montgomery and enrolled at Alabama State College for Negroes to become a teacher. Gray’s family had no car and, because his mother’s home was on the west side of town, he had to take city buses to classes at the college that is now Alabama State University on the east side of town.

“I found out then that Black people in Montgomery had some serious problems,” Gray said. “One, they were being mistreated on the buses, being told to get up and give white people their seats. A Black man had been killed on one of the buses. I concluded that while I didn’t know anything about lawyers, and didn’t know any lawyers, I understood that lawyers help people solve problems, and I thought Black people in Montgomery had problems. … Everything was completely segregated and we were just mistreated in every aspect of life.”

Gray graduated from ASU in 1951, deciding he wanted to be a preacher, teacher and lawyer. Because Blacks weren’t allowed to attend law schools in Alabama, he applied for and was admitted to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the first time he had ever lived in a white environment. In 1954, he graduated and took the Ohio bar exam, then came home and took the Alabama bar exam, passing both. On Sept. 7, 1954, Gray was licensed to practice in Alabama, becoming one of a handful of Black lawyers in the state.

Gray had been supported in his law school efforts by Parks, ASU professor J.E. Pierce, Montgomery civil rights activist E.D. Nixon and others. He’d followed his mother’s instructions to “Keep Christ first in your life, stay in school, get a good education and stay out of trouble.” She’d told him it was fine to be a lawyer, but to never stop preaching. Gray would preach at Newtown Church of Christ in the midst of important early civil rights trials and he continues preaching today.

Even before the bus boycotts, Gray was being groomed for that historic stage. He’d hardly begun practicing when he was hired to represent 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who’d been arrested on March 2, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery city bus.

“That was my first civil rights case, before Judge (Wiley) Hill. And I tried to explain to Judge Hill that she was not a delinquent … but they were trying to enforce the segregation laws, and they were unconstitutional, but the judge didn’t listen to me,” Gray said laughing. “He was nice and respectful but he found her to be a delinquent and placed her on unsupervised probation, which meant that she didn’t have to report to anybody. She didn’t get involved in any more trouble.”

Parks and Gray had been having lunch together in his office, which was just down the street from where she worked as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store. They talked for a year about the buses, desegregation, fairness in society for Blacks and what needed to be done to overcome those problems.

“I knew that, though she never told me what she would do, I felt confident that she would not get up and give her seat if the situation arose,” Gray said.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks did not give up her seat.

Fifteen years later, Gray and Thomas Reed became the first Black members of the Alabama House of Representatives since Reconstruction. In 1970, Gray would become noted for his legislative expertise and oratory, but four years earlier he had been set to make history alone, prior to some last-minute vote-counting.

“It came out that I was elected (in 1966),” Gray said, “and then down in Barbour County, when the absentee votes came in, I had lost by the amount of votes that I had originally won by.”

After the loss, Gray decided to move from Montgomery to Black-majority Tuskegee, where he set up a law office and was elected to the state governing body. Soon afterward, he learned of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and began representing the victims of the government effort in which Black men were offered free health care without being told they suffered from the disease. Gray won a lengthy court battle for the victims, which ultimately led to a public apology from President Bill Clinton. Gray wrote about his experiences in “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study” and his autobiography “Bus Ride to Justice.”

In his career, Gray has been lauded nationwide, including honorary doctorates from more than 10 universities. He was the first Black president of the Alabama Bar Association. He is in the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. He received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. He was the National Bar Association president in 1985 and a decade later inducted into its Hall of Fame. Gray was named in 2019 as a “Living Legend” by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and also as an Alabama Humanities Foundation Fellow.

Throughout his eight decades as a preacher, teacher and lawyer, Gray has credited his success to the earliest influence instilled by his mother.

“The Lord has played a major role in all of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t handle a case that I didn’t think the Lord would be pleased with what I was doing. Because I had, first, to be sure that what I’m doing is not contrary to God’s law and, secondly, it’s not contrary to my own basic religious background. So, it played a major role in all of it.”

Gray’s legal work and courtroom battles will be his legacy. He recognizes his role in societal changes since the 1950s has benefited Americans but Gray longs for more to be done in the nation he reveres.

“We need to, one, acknowledge the fact that racism and inequality is wrong, and that needs to start at the top. I’m glad the president (Biden) has taken a step in that direction,” Gray said. “But it also needs to go from the Supreme Court, the CEOs, the heads of our educational institutions, the heads of our fraternities and our sororities and the heads of our religious organizations.

“We have to acknowledge that racism and inequality is wrong,” Gray added. “We have to come up with a plan … and while we talk about it starting at the top, we must also, every one of us individually, needs to realize that racism and inequality is so ingrained in this nation.”

Over his career, Gray has handled thousands of lawsuits. Legal precedent finds his name alongside some of the most important cases in Alabama and American history. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed him in the movie “Selma,” persuading federal Judge Frank Johnson to allow King and others to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. It was a milestone decision, yet legal experts and historians often debate about which of Gray’s cases is most important.

“When a person comes to a lawyer’s office, they usually have a problem,” Gray said. “And they don’t care how many cases you won or lost, all they want you to do is to devote effort to him and his case and get him the results he thinks he’s entitled to, whether he is legally entitled to it or not. I think all of my cases are the most important case I’ve had.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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Ivey dismisses efforts by legislature to rein in executive branch power — ‘You don’t need a herd of turtles gathering to make an emergency decision’

As of last week, there are measures under consideration in both the House and Senate that would add checks to executive branch authority under declared emergencies by granting the Alabama Legislature the power to have input if it desired.

One proposal in the House, sponsored by State Rep. Becky Nordgren (R-Gadsden), would allow the legislature to call itself into session. Another bill, led by State Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), would limit the length of a state of emergency and the state health officer’s power.

During an interview that aired on this week’s broadcast of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Gov. Kay Ivey dismissed those efforts and likened her role in a state of emergency to that of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban making a gameday decision.

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“The reason the executive branch has been given the authority to act in emergencies is because it is an emergency,” she said. “If Coach Saban has a decision to make on the football field, does he call all his assistant coaches, the trustees and the administration together? No. Coach makes a decision. Can you imagine trying to get 140 legislators who are not in town, who don’t work full-time back into session in order to adopt an emergency situation to make an emergency decision? It is quite evident that the three priority bills the legislature passed the first two weeks — those contained in my emergency declaration to tie them over so we wouldn’t miss a beat for economic development and protecting our businesses and assuring the tax preparers that the state would not be collecting, not one penny of tax from the CARES money.”

When asked about the proposals in the legislature, she suggested they might stymy the executive branch’s ability to act in an emergency.

“I know they’ve been introduced, and the legislature always likes to have their time and their say, and that’s fine — but in an emergency, you don’t need a herd of turtles gathering to make an emergency decision,” Ivey added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

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Alabama actress, singer, songwriter Abigail Barlow scores with her musical ‘Bridgerton’

“OK, but what if ‘Bridgerton’ was a musical?”

That’s the question that Abigail Barlow, who grew up in Birmingham and lives in Los Angeles, posed to her TikTok followers in early January. The post included “Daphne’s Song,” the first song Barlow wrote based on the hit Netflix series about debutantes in Regency-era London. She also posted “I Burn for You,” and after partnering with former child prodigy Emily Bear, has written 10 more songs.

“Bridgerton: The Musical” is taking on a life of its own, with Barlow and Bear fielding interview requests from PlaybillVarietyNPR, the BBCSiriusXM radio and others.

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“I’m in absolute awe at the reaction so far,” says Barlow, who worked with Red Mountain Theatre Company when she was in Birmingham. “I’ve been posting my original music on TikTok for years, so this response was more than I could ever ask for as a songwriter.”

Barlow thought about moving to Nashville to pursue songwriting, but she decided on Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of her sister, actress Anna Grace Barlow (“Supernatural,” “Scream Queens,” “The Young and the Restless”).

“She’s my absolute biggest cheerleader, and vice versa,” Abigail Barlow says of her sister. “I’m so grateful that she lives five minutes away from me in Los Angeles. She has absolutely mastered her own art, and she always gives me advice on the best way to master mine. … I owe it all to family.”

Barlow, who is an actress as well as a singer/songwriter, got some notice in 2020 with the release of her song “Heartbreak Hotel,” which some commenters said put off a “Taylor Swift vibe.”

“I was just writing what I was feeling,” she says. “I was very into this boy I was seeing at the time, but I was still so traumatized by the ghosts of boyfriends past. If it gives off Taylor Swift vibes, that’s one heck of a compliment.”

Then came “Bridgerton,” an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels, which premiered on Netflix in December 2020. One of its producers is Shonda Rimes, whose TV work includes “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

“I binged the entire series and was in awe of the dialogue and masterful storytelling,” Barlow says. “It’s incredibly poetic. The music basically writes itself. There was one piece of dialogue in specific that inspired me to run to my piano and start writing: ‘You have no idea what it’s like to be in a room with someone you cannot live without and yet still feel like you’re oceans apart.’”

That’s the crux of the faux-turned-real relationship of Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset, the lovers at the center of “Bridgerton.”

The excitement that “Bridgerton” created on Netflix translated to TikTok, with Barlow and Bear’s musical work gaining not only attention from fans, but from fans singing the “Bridgerton” songs themselves. They’ve heard from Quinn, the author of the books, as well as “Bridgerton” cast members Phoebe Dynevor (Daphne), Nicola Coughlin (Penelope) and Luke Newton (Colin Bridgerton).

Barlow, 22, says she has enjoyed writing with Bear, a 19-year-old who has worked with Quincy Jones.

“We just click when we write,” Barlow says. “It’s almost like magic.”

The two are self-admitted “fangirls” of “Bridgerton,” which will have a second season on Netflix. “It’s a Regency-era ‘Gossip Girl,’ and what young woman wouldn’t be obsessed with that?” Barlow asks.

The future of the musical “Bridgerton” is unknown, but if it became a full-scale project, Barlow would love to be considered for the role of Daphne.

“She’s headstrong, yet delicate; determined, yet patient,” she says. “She’s everything I love in a leading lady, and with all the music we’re writing for her, she’s slowly becoming a dream role for me.”

Whether that ends up being on stage somewhere is still in the air, but Barlow and Bear are enjoying the ride.

“We’d love for it to be a project that goes the distance, but we’re just so grateful for all of the support, and we’re trying to live in the moment and take each exciting opportunity as it comes,” Barlow says.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program participants thriving, becoming leaders

Not only are members of Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program (TESP) enjoying their college experience on the Plains, they are thriving and evolving into leaders.

Nearly 300 students involved with the program – designed to support the persistence and retention of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, low-income families and first-generation college enrollees – posted a 3.42 cumulative GPA for the fall 2020 semester. Administered through Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID), in partnership with the Office of the Provost, the scholars program is developing the leaders of tomorrow through its efforts.

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A total of 69 TESP students finished the fall 2020 semester with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, bolstering the group’s already strong cumulative GPA that routinely eclipses the institutional average. The majority of TESP students are recipients of the Provost Leadership Undergraduate Scholarship.

More than a dozen of the program’s students came to Auburn through the state chapter of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), an initiative administered through the Office of University Outreach that is designed to identify potential college students from Alabama middle and high schools and provide a path to higher education. Those students finished the semester with a 3.68 cumulative GPA, further illustrating the program’s success.

“I’m biased, but I think I have the best students on campus,” said Jasmine Prince, OID’s assistant director for Inclusive Excellence Initiatives, who oversees the TESP program. “What our numbers say is that our students understand not only our commitment to ensuring they’re successful academically, but also that they’ve made a personal commitment to ensure their own academic success. We play a role in that, but it’s a lot of individual work on their part.

“It speaks to the way we’re communicating our expectations to them about what excellence looks like and what scholarly behavior is, and it speaks to their own personal commitment to what academic excellence means. It’s a big deal to be in this program.”

Commitment to excellence

The TESP model is focused on the holistic development of all scholars through intentional engagement, supportive resources and community building. In addition to financial support, TESP students are given access to academic help, mentors and other university resources.

Students are encouraged to engage with one another at a variety of social events, from movies or game nights to “success seminars” and athletic activities – often led by upperclassmen in the program. The consistent interaction gives students a sense of community, further deepening their college experience and helping new students become acclimated to college life.

“We want them to spend time together outside of an atmosphere where they have to learn something, like in their regular classes,” said Prince, who has worked with the program since 2016. “We want to give students opportunities to lead and determine how the sessions are run. Creating an environment where they feel like they can thrive is important.”

OID was forced to shift TESP operations online with the COVID-19 outbreak last year, but administrators and students rallied to adjust and overcome the obstacles. They focused on helping students adjust to virtual instruction in the wake of the pandemic.

“The very first thing we did when we all transitioned to a virtual learning environment is that we hosted one or two scholar check-ins,” said Prince, who hopes the program can involve more in-person events as the winter semester progresses. “We wanted to ensure they were transitioning well, they had what they needed at home and were communicating with their faculty members. That was important for them to have an outlet to be able to share their concerns.

“More of our experiences last spring were centered on community building. We were able to check in with them, see what they needed from us and then provide that. Fall semester, our entire program was virtual. Scholars really missed the in-person events, and we did virtual community nights, which I think also was helpful for our team and scholars.”

TESP operates with four “Pillars of Success” in mind: Academic Excellence, Leadership Capacity, Diversity and Inclusion and Future Focus. Students are taught the importance of each pillar throughout their time at Auburn and, in the process, are given a strong foundation from which to build their professional careers after graduation.

“We’re prepping them for the next steps beyond Auburn,” said Prince, who is hosting a TESP Young Alumni Panel later this semester.

To apply for the program – which has grown from 30 to nearly 300 students as it approaches its 15th anniversary – students submit an application and essay that outlines their desire to become a scholar and contribute to the university’s diversity efforts. Essays are scored by a selection committee, and then college deans make the final decisions about who is admitted.

Scholars must maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA to remain in the program, and students may keep their scholarships for all four years of their collegiate careers by meeting the requirements. OID has partnered with Academic Support to provide academic coaching to any TESP students who need extra help acclimating to college or boosting their GPAs.

An opportunity to thrive

For senior public relations major April Alvarez, TESP helped offer a way for the Montgomery native to become the first person in her family to attend college.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it to college,” Alvarez said. “Not only has (the scholarship) given me the opportunity to be here, but it’s given me so much more than that. There’s a community behind it, so I have these mentors I can lean on.

“I just remember when I got here and thinking, ‘Wow, my world is forever changed.’ I really saw everything from a whole new lens once I got to Auburn and realized I can do well and get this degree, but also have all this knowledge of how to be successful in the professional world.”

Alvarez is president of Students for Clean Water – an Auburn group that works with the Birmingham-based Neverthirst clean water ministry to provide water filters to Nepal and raise awareness for the global water crisis that plagues many nations. In addition, she is interning at Lee County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and helping the association promote its efforts to aid abused and neglected children.

Alvarez is one of the TESP Resource Consultants, the student team responsible for leading community night experiences and facilitating success seminars. The professional skills and leadership experience Alvarez has gained during her four years in the TESP program, she said, have been invaluable.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of it and have grown as a person,” said Alvarez, who will graduate in May. “Looking back, I just never would have thought of myself to be in this position of earning a degree and developing so much professionally. I didn’t even know what a cover letter was when I got to Auburn.

“I think having the access to all kinds of information like that has really made a difference for me and made me into more of a well-rounded person.”

Royce Williams – a freshman mechanical engineering major – followed his sister, Naja, into TESP. In addition to educating him about different facets of campus life and resources available to him as a scholar, the program has helped Royce meet people, despite the pandemic.

“It’s been really helpful in paying for my college experience, and the events they host also have been really helpful,” said Williams, a Birmingham native. “I’m more of an introvert, and with COVID going on and most classes being online, it’s been harder for me to meet new people. The activities they have are really helpful for meeting new people who have the same interests as me.

“Having less opportunities to be out on campus walking around and seeing what’s going on and what’s out there because of COVID, this program has really helped in reaching out and recommending different events and organizations to get involved with.”

Williams is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Engineering Academic Excellence Program (EAEP) and the Emerge at Auburn leadership program. He has enjoyed TESP’s success seminars, where he has begun to learn skills that will help him down the road in the workforce.

“One thing I’m really looking forward to getting involved with in college is the co-op programs, because I think it will help me learn a lot about what type of job I want to do and what I want to do outside of college,” Williams said. “So, these programs that help with interview skills and how to make a proper resume and helped me prepare for that experience have been really helpful.”

Prince said the most fulfilling aspects of the program for her and other administrators is seeing firsthand how the students grow and evolve during their time on the Plains.

“Some of the most fulfilling moments come when students have those ‘Aha!’ lightbulb moments and it just clicks,” Prince said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is why all that stuff you’ve been telling me matters.’ I love seeing all those things get put together in those moments.

“I always love seeing students graduate – although it also makes me sad when scholars leave – because our scholars are doing some incredible things. We have scholars all over the nation who are in professional or graduate school or working for amazing companies or teaching. It’s exciting to know that I was a part of preparing them to step into whatever their next chapter might be.”

No matter where her career path leads, Alvarez will take with her experiences and memories that would not have been possible without TESP.

“I’ve gotten much more than just a degree, and I feel a lot more confident as a person and in my abilities,” said Alvarez, who would love to work for Delta Air Lines or in the nonprofit or health care sectors after graduating. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience and learned a lot about myself in the process.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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