Student Freedom Initiative will make its first official debut in fall 2021, launching at Tuskegee University and eight other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for the 2021-2022 academic year. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), Student Freedom Initiative will enhance the higher education experience and broaden student outlooks for career paths, specifically for students of color who historically have lacked generational wealth to pay for college.
Student Freedom Initiative’s efforts were funded by initial gifts of $50 million from philanthropist Robert F. Smith, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, and a $50 million gift from the Fund II Foundation — a charitable organization committed to advancing social change, of which Smith is the founding director and President.
“We can graduate all STEM students from HBCUs in essence forever under this program. It becomes self-sustaining,” Smith said in June 2020 in TIME magazine. “They support the next generation of students, and it gives them flexibility to actually drive back some of what I call their intellectual property — what they’ve learned in college and business — back into the communities in ways that matter.”
The program will offer four main support components: tutoring and mentoring programs designed in cooperation with individual colleges, paid internships via the internXL initiative, capacity-building between schools and students and an income-contingent funding alternative for eligible students through the Student Freedom Agreement. Students at participating schools will be offered serious, tangible benefits for their future careers, such as paid prestigious internships, discounted software and hardware and interview and resume workshops.
“The Initiative will be specifically tailored to our students’ needs, giving them access to a host of new and interesting opportunities,” Tuskegee University Interim President Dr. Charlotte P. Morris said.
A variety of elements of Student Freedom Initiative are specifically tailored to STEM majors of color, like the aforementioned internXL offering, which provides networking opportunities and prestigious internships at companies like AT&T, Vertafore Insurance Solutions and EAB.
Studies show that STEM fields in particular suffer from a lack of representation of people of color, although many leaders, consumers and citizens alike consider racial diversity important. The Pew Research Center estimated that a mere 9% of workers in STEM fields are Black. In addition, median earnings for Black individuals in the field were $59,000, compared to the median income for white individuals of $70,000.
A STEM Education Journal report concluded that factors such as matched mentorship, educational support and inclusive learning were imperative to strengthening belonging among STEM students and young professionals of color. By focusing on targeted investment in HBCUs like Tuskegee, Student Freedom Initiative aims to bridge this gap, producing a new generation of professionals of color across all STEM fields.