Media-still-SP-5When Temani Beck, a senior at Ramsay High School, signed up for the SpeakFirst debate team four years ago, she hoped it would help her get into college.

Now it will also pay for it.

The University of Alabama and UAB pledged Wednesday to provide full scholarships to all students who complete three years with SpeakFirst, a nonprofit program that targets minority teens.

“I can’t believe it,” Miannica Lowe, a sophomore at Ramsay High School, said after calling her father in tears with the news. As one of five children, she had no idea how she could afford college. “I had never been out of Birmingham before I was on this team, and then I went to North Carolina, I got an internship at a law firm, and now this.” The debate team draws students – currently eight seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, and four freshmen – from Birmingham public schools, although a few who have moved out of the system also participate. The announcement came as a surprise to the students, who let out screams, hugged each other and cried. Before the big announcement, they learned they will also receive free laptops computers from Jim Kennemer of Vision Resources and have been promised executive-level internships by Birmingham’s Division of Youth Services. “It’s crazy, because when we started the program we didn’t think it was going to be this big,” said Beck who already has applied to UA and UAB. “I’m floating on clouds,” said Crystalline Jones, a senior at Hewitt-Trussville High School who has been accepted at UA and wants to be a pre-med student, “I couldn’t stand up I was shaking so hard.” “I’m over the moon. This is awesome,” said Yelonda Jones, Crystalline’s mother. “We’ve been stressing to them, if you do well, God will provide.”

The students have worked hard for the honor. Each participant commits to three hours of practice a day, three days a week, plus travel to competitions on weekends and extra time researching their presentations. They compete against suburban and private school forensics teams locally and around the region.   “I really do believe that the time commitment and the academic commitment these students have made to be in this program is absolutely an indication of the commitment they can make when they get to college,” said DeeDee Barnes Bruns, vice president for enrollment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Each scholarship, which includes tuition and fees, is worth about $30,000 over four years. Stephen Black, who founded SpeakFirst four years ago as part of the IMPACT Alabama organization, said the goal of the program was ultimately to get the students higher education. But it was also designed to help urban students develop their communication skills, break down stereotypes, and boost their self-esteem. Black said there are no immediate plans to expand the program in Birmingham, although he has discussed founding a SpeakFirst in Montgomery.

Written by Hannah Wolfson for the Birmingham News, October 25, 2007.