Scholarship recipients from Central Illinois on Friday will hear from a leader of color who embodies the type of success that the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet wants to cultivate.
Dr. Jamel Santa Cruz Wright is the first woman and first African American president at Eureka College. At Friday’s event she plans to emphasize the importance of what helped her get to where she is today: momentum.
“This work can be very daunting and it can wear on you tremendously, so I plan to share the importance of self care, building alliances and why keeping the momentum is important. The rest you’ll have to come and see,” Wright said. (Tickets are now available.)
The Bloomington-Normal NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet raises thousands of dollars for scholarships for high school and college students. NAACP banquet chair Willie Halbert said its name emphasizes the fight for true freedom.
“We think of freedom being free, but really there's a lot of work. It costs for that ‘freedom.’ It costs for time and for our effort, so bringing people together and acknowledging that there is work that needs to be done and that we do need to keep the momentum going, is what it's about,” Halbert said.
Halbert said the NAACP chose Wright as keynote speaker because it's important for students to see such a local institution like Eureka College being led by a woman, in order to break out of society’s gender role standards of achievement.
“People still have this idea of what a president looks like, what qualities they should possess, and as much as we hate to admit it, many people do not see a woman in that role,” Halbert said.
“They still see a woman at home, taking care of the children. Yes she can work but only limited positions. So to see that there is a young lady who kind of broke through that glass ceiling and said ‘I cannot be defined’ and sharing the importance of not letting others define who you are, what you can achieve, and to not just meet your goals but exceed them, is the message we want to share with people,” Halbert said. “Dr. Wright is a great example of that.”
Eureka College—best known as Ronald Reagan's college—was founded in 1855 by abolitionists and was the first college in Illinois to admit both men and women equally. Wright, a native of St. Louis, said she’s very humbled to have her title. With hard work and perseverance, she said, becoming a new “first” has only added to the college’s legacy.
“Hard work, prayer and a lot of help is what got me here. Having people lift me up and help me in my time of need, when I was afraid to say that I was in need, and being open to expanding my network of mentors and friends and advisors was very important,” Wright said.
“You never know who a king or queen might be, so you always have to treat everyone as if they are. That is a philosophy and approach that I’ve adopted and embraced over the course of my life and I think that has done me well,” she said. “So anytime I’m asked to speak to a group, I'm happy to do that because so many people have helped me, and I would not be able to pay them back in any other way, other than offering words of encouragement to others.”
Working in higher education has been challenging for many over the past few years as college is expensive and students tend to move out of Illinois to attend other universities.
Wright took over at a challenging time for higher education in Illinois, including increased recruitment pressure coming from out-of-state schools.
Wright said Eureka’s personal touch with recruitment has helped its enrollment, which is 512 students this fall.
“In order to keep students, we all have to understand that students aren't just recruited on the front end, but we have to continue to recruit them once they arrive, in order to keep them satisfied and retained,” Wright said. “Making sure that we continue to differentiate ourselves and establishing strategic partnerships is very important and always continuing to enhance the student experience.”
Wright said her college also makes sure to enhance its support for first-generation students.
“We have a significant percentage of first-generation college students at Eureka, and any given year it's over 50% of our student body that's first generation. Those retention and persistence efforts have to be continuous, so we've added quite a few additional touches over the last few years and have definitely seen some of the positive results of that on the retention and persistence side.”
For anyone aspiring to hold a leadership position as she does, Wright said her advice would be to develop a thick skin.
“Asking as many questions as you possibly can at any point in time is extremely important,” she said. “We are all connected, and the more we can learn from each other, and learn about each other and understand each other's experiences, the better off we will be as a community of people.”
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