In a celebration that showcased student talents ranging from poetry reading to innovative dance and participation in a Jazz Combo, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Scholarship Banquet at the University of Central Missouri on Jan. 16 honored the civil rights leader’s legacy by presenting financial awards to deserving students and celebrating the arts.

Taking place in the ballroom of the Elliott Student Union, the event included the presentation of MLK Freedom Scholarships to three UCM students, as well as the announcement of four additional scholarships made possible through the sponsorship of Youth Excited about Sports (YES) in Warrensburg. Representatives of UCM and the African American Heritage Association (AAHA) from Whiteman Air Force Base conducted the award presentations.

The recognition ceremony also included the introduction of a local resident, Sharon Franklin, and a Warrensburg High School senior, Claire Thomas, who were honored by the Warrensburg Chamber of Commerce last week as recipients of MLK Community Service Awards. Chamber Board President Joshua Detherage introduced these honorees, whom he said exemplify King’s “legacy of service, humanitarianism, and leadership."

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Shari Bax, Ph.D., vice president for student experience and engagement, and Lover Chancler, Ph.D., director of the Center for Multiculturalism and Inclusivity, introduced the recipients of Freedom Scholarships. Among these students was Tia Flenoy, a criminal justice major from St. Louis who is also seeking a minor in
computer science, and J’Hyah Elbert, a UCM junior from St. Louis who is pursuing a major in public relations and strategic communications with a minor in business administration. Another university student, Jaren Williams, was recognized but unable to attend the event. He is a senior design and drafting major from Maryland Heights.

Chancler read an acceptance letter from Williams, whose accomplishments included making the Dean’s List, being involved in intramural sports, working at the Career and Life Design Center, and participating in various club activities. He noted the financial struggles that he faced his senior year, and what it means to receive a scholarship that will make a difference in his life as a student.

“My goal is to live a life I can be proud of and I plan to start by traveling to different states and deciding where I want to live permanently. This scholarship helps me not only to financially cover this semester’s expenses, but to remind me that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel."

Other Freedom Scholarship honorees also have been actively engaged in extracurricular activities at UCM. Flenoy, for example, has engaged in leadership opportunities through Underdog and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., which have “contributed to a journey of self-discovery.” Elbert also is involved in Sigma Gamma Rho and serves the UCM football team as the Assistant for Operations and Recruitment, where she showcases her organizational prowess and dedication to fostering team success.

The scholarships supported by YES were presented by members of the Whiteman Air Force Base African American Heritage Association (AAHA) Staff Sgt. E-5 Andy Garcia-Byanville and Captain Shaquan Clarke, diversity, equity and inclusion chairperson.

While honorees are all UCM students, they have shown strong involvement with the YES program as leaders of the YES Club. Among the award recipients is Malachi Mitchell, a freshman from Lee’s Summit who is an open options student at UCM, and Teriah Roberson, a sophomore from Kansas City who is seeking an aviation-professional pilot degree and is president of the Women’s Aviation Club. Also honored were Allison Dilley, a senior from Warrensburg majoring in speech-language pathology, and Keila Lainez, a senior events marketing and management major from Blue Springs.

In speaking about these students, Garcia-Byanville noted, “Not only do they deserve recognition for their individual accomplishments but also stand united as beacons of hope and catalysts for change in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their endeavors exemplify the scholarship's mission to support and empower individuals who strive to build a more equitable and harmonious future for all."

Prior to the award presentations, Bax spoke briefly about the history of the MLK Freedom Scholarship Banquet, while also reminding the audience the theme, “Living the Dream: It Starts with Me, Spreading Hope, Courage and Unity,” is important. To illustrate her point, she provided excerpts of a sermon King presented on Christmas day 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bax noted, “One of the things he said was, if you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps moving. You lose the courage to be – that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. I think that if an individual such as Martin Luther King Jr., given all that he had to face in his battles, could hold on to hope and demonstrate courage, I think all of us in this room can commit to doing the same thing,” she said. “I hope that as you leave here tonight you will take with you the theme the university has chosen for their celebration this week, and really make it true that ‘It starts with me, it starts with you, spreading that hope, that courage so that our community can be a better place for all who live in it."

Bax also recognized the founders of the Freedom Scholarship initiative, the Association of American Faculty and Staff. They provided leadership needed to launch the program in 1994.

“When the idea for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Scholarship originated, they were the ones that led the way,” she said. “We thank them for their vision, persistence, and generosity, which have made the continuing presentation of these scholarships possible.”

Cutline Information: University of Central Missouri students from St. Louis, J’Hyah Elbert, second from left, and Tia Flenoy display certificates recognizing them as recipients of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Scholarships. Making the presentations were, left, Lover Chancler, Ph.D., director of the UCM Center for Multiculturalism and Inclusivity, and Shari Bax, Ph.D., right, vice president for Student Experience and Engagement. Also honored, but not present for the photo was Jaren Williams, Maryland Heights.

Cutline Information: Members of the Whiteman Air Force Base African American Heritage Association (AAHA) Captain Shaquan Clarke, left, diversity, equity and inclusion chairperson, and Staff Sgt. E-5 Andy Garcia-Byanville, right, make presentations of Freedom Scholarships supported by Students Excited about Sports (YES) to four UCM student. Award recipients with their certificates were from left, Allison Dilley, Keila Lainez, Malachi Mitchell, and Teriah Roberson.


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