RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Eta Omicron chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity set out an ambitious goal when it met for its 45th reunion five years ago.
"Some people still forget that there are first-generation college students coming to this institution. Some people forget that a lot of our students have financial difficulties that don't allow them to just focus on their studies, so they have to work at the same time. So, we as a chapter wanted to honor the memories of Dr. (Lawrence) Clark and Dr. (Augustus) Witherspoon, so at our 45th anniversary, we set out to raise $50,000 to be split between the two scholarships. And that was our way of giving back and kind of honoring their legacy here on this campus," said Dr. Kanton Reynolds, the Director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State, who also serves as Executive Director for the Association of North Carolina Alphamen.
"But then when we got into it, we realized we could do better," Reynolds added. "And so, over the five years between our 45th anniversary and our 50th anniversary, which we celebrated at this year's homecoming, we were able to raise over $100,000.
Aryssa Simpson understands those obstacles; she's a first-generation college student who balanced a job and her studies as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida.
"I think out of like a 90-student (class), there were only two of us (who worked)," Simpson recalled.
She's now in the second year of her Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering with NC State and UNC Chapel-Hill. Simpson is a recipient of the Witherspoon scholarship, which is for graduate students.
"I wanted to specifically dedicate it to conferences, opportunities to get my exposure up because I'm new to the field. The funds that I receive would be solely dedicated to that, which allows me to network more and then become an African-American role model within the biomedical engineering field," said Simpson.
Simpson hopes to use her work to give back to society.
"I can see my role in biomedical engineering sort of reducing racial health disparities within Black and brown communities," said Simpson.
Despite making up more than 21% of the state's population, only about 6% of students at NC State are Black, a large disparity that Reynolds and Simpson hope this fundraising push can help address.
"Going into graduate school, it's really hard to find a network. It's all brand new to everyone, and I'm assuming it's even more brand new to me," Simpson said. "So I encounter a lot of instances where I just feel like I'm not supposed to be here, "Imposter Syndrome," and luckily I love the program here, so I've been blessed with individuals who have led me to fellowship opportunities, conferences, just getting more exposure in the field."
It's a chance to serve and give back for all involved.
"It's an opportunity for us to work together to make this institution inclusive and equitable for all the citizens in North Carolina, and we do that by making sure that the financial piece doesn't make it out of reach for certain numbers of students. But the other piece is the service piece -- giving back and making sure that students know that this is an encouraging and inviting environment," said Reynolds.
Reynolds is an alum and credited the work of Witherspoon and Clark in improving the campus experience.
"For African-American students on this campus, Dr. Augustus Witherspoon, Dr. Lawrence Clark - they are everything. They are the founding fathers of most of the things associated with African-American students on this campus," Reynolds said. "Dr. Witherspoon is one of two African-Americans that has a building named after him on this campus. Dr. Witherspoon was the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. from this institution. He started what became the African-American Cultural Center. Dr. Clark helped start what was the African-American Symposium, which is the reason I even came to NC State, so it was an opportunity for me as an out-of-state student to spend some time with the African-American faculty and staff, the African-American students, and see that this was a family environment, a place I wanted to be as a college student."
He said the chapter already has its next fundraising goal.
"The next goal is for us to start a third fund named after our chapter, specifically focused on African-American male students, because that population is decreasing even more so than some of the other populations," Reynolds said. "So, that's our next fundraising goal, is to start a fund that specifically identifies strong, African-American male students to bring them to campus. Over last academic year, I believe, we only brought in around 160 African-American male students, and that included student-athletes."