Empower Me Tour comes to Minneapolis

Caine Knuckles, a senior at Southwest High School, won a $50,000 scholarship to Philander Smith College. Pictured with Michael Thomas, Minneapolis Public Schools’ chief of schools (left) and Caroline Wanga, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at Target (right). Photo by Atomic K Photography courtesy of UNCF.

With only a transcript in hand, Caine Knuckles walked into the Empower Me Tour at the Minneapolis Convention Center Sept. 27. He left with a $50,000 scholarship to Philander Smith College.

Knuckles, a senior at Southwest High School, has two older siblings struggling to pay for college.

“They’re trying to scrape money together,” he said. “It’s hard, but we’re getting through it. It’ll be fine.”

With his scholarship from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the organizer of the Empower Me Tour, Knuckles and his family will have much greater financial freedom when he goes to college next year.

“It means a lot. It’s a dream come true because my dream is to go to college,” Knuckles said. “It means people are actually noticing my hard work and that it’s paying off.”

In addition to the scholarship, Knuckles said he was accepted to three colleges on-site: Tuskegee, Philander Smith College and Clark Atlanta University.

Knuckles hasn’t decided where he wants to go to college, but he loves math and is considering mechanical engineering as his major.

More than 700 other students from Minneapolis Public Schools attended the UNCF Empower Me Tour and had the opportunity to attend workshops, apply for scholarships and even submit applications to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Paulette Jackson, vice president of development at UNCF, said the national tour is meant to provide students of color — particularly African-American students — and their parents with the information, tools and resources they need to successfully make the transition from high school to college.

“This is really meant to help empower students and parents,” Jackson said. “For a lot of our students, they are still first generation college students.”

The on-site admissions and scholarships are also meant to reinforce the importance of education, she said.

“In September, to be already accepted to a college and have a scholarship — that’s powerful,” Jackson said. “That tells the students: these things are important, I need to pay attention.”

Beyond engaging the students, the scholarships make college seem less daunting for parents. Jackson said many recipients of UNCF scholarships are the children of single moms working hard to support several children

“We gave easily over a half a million in scholarships — that’s phenomenal,” Jackson said. “What a relief that is for parents. We’re trying not to help just one student, but all of their kids.”

At the daylong event, students attended workshops on how to pay for college, professionalism and image.

Caroline Wanga, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at Target, was a panelist for the workshop, “Girl Talk: Imagine a Future.” Target awarded a total of $30,000 in scholarships at the Empower Me Tour.

“I’m here to help young people go to school, because this is my story. I’m a UNCF alumni,” Wanga said. “I’m eternally grateful and will give back for the rest of my life.”

Talaya Quinn, a senior at Patrick Henry High School, hadn’t heard of any of the HBCUs who sent representatives to the Empower Me Tour. But things went well when she stopped by the Wilberforce University booth.

“Before I even said anything, [the admissions counselor] said, ‘I love your energy. I think we’re going to need you,’” Quinn said. She was offered a $12,000 scholarship to Wilberforce.

“This is the first scholarship money I ever got,” Quinn said. “I think I’ll go.”

Michael Gumm, admissions counselor at Wilberforce University, said he offered around $200,000 in scholarships at the event. The scholarships are renewable over a four-year period if students maintain a 3.2 GPA.

Gumm said events like the Empower Me Tour are important, because it helps students understand not only the importance of college, but also the benefits of attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“Our focus is for students to find themselves — to define their character — so they can go into the world and recalibrate society,” he said. “It’s not just about graduating, it’s about graduating with a sense of self.”

Michael Thomas, Minneapolis Public Schools’ chief of schools, said HBCUs offer students of color advantages that other institutions aren’t equipped to do. Thomas said the opportunity to learn from black professors can be transformative for students.

HBCUs also take the time to stress soft skills — interpersonal, social, emotional skills — in programming, Thomas said.

“Coming from a public K-12 system, nine times out of 10, students aren’t going to see someone who looks like them instructing,” he said. “The benefit of HBCUs is that they teach you how to survive in a world that isn’t necessarily built for you.”

Terry Henry, the district’s executive director of College and Career Readiness, said what can be empowering for students is that attending an HBCU is no longer their only option, but is a great option.

“This is about culturally responsive programming — viewing a campus as identifying with you,” Henry said. “HBCUs went from being your only option to excellent research institutions.”

The Empower Me Tour — the admissions opportunities, workshops and scholarships — are meant to expose students to these options and reinforce messages about the importance of college.

Ashlei Stevens, communications manager for UNCF and moderator of the “Girl Talk: Imagine a Future” session emphasized the opportunities a college education provides, which are accessible to all students.

“There’s no limit in the world for you,” Stevens said. “Your black is beautiful.”