(PNS) — When Kyley Thompson’s maternal grandmother died, not only did she lose her role model and best friend, but she also lost her biggest cheerleader.
Growing up in a low-income family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which didn’t give much encouragement to the pursuit of higher education, Thompson knew that her grandmother, Anne Barbara Benedict, was a rare bird.
A gifted teacher of many language subjects — including Braille and French, both of which she learned in college — and the immediate family’s only college graduate, Benedict was Thompson’s champion and her tower of strength.
“When we were kids, we struggled a lot with poverty, with our parents gone to jobs all the time,” Thompson said. “And although my grandmother tried to encourage me and my cousins to go to college, when there’s only one person encouraging you to do something, it’s hard.”
Thompson said that because her grandmother had raised four children as a single parent and “never saw the side of education where teachers were paid well,” the support she so lovingly offered was emotional rather than financial.
Still determined to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps — even as she faced the prospect of bearing the prohibitive cost of higher education alone — Thompson enrolled at a large public university but quickly realized that the environment was overwhelming and did not provide her with a setting in which she could thrive.
That’s when Stillman College stepped in.
In the absence of strong parental or family support, the small, close-knit community right there in her own backyard became Thompson’s whole world.
Stillman College, located on a 105-acre campus in Thompson’s hometown of Tuscaloosa, was founded in 1876 by a group of Presbyterians led by the Rev. Dr. Charles Allen Stillman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa.
Initially established as a training school for African American ministers, today the college is “committed to fostering academic excellence, to providing opportunities for diverse populations, and to maintaining a strong tradition of preparing students for leadership and service by fostering experiential learning and community engagement designed to equip and empower Stillman’s students and its constituents.”
“I think Stillman has a unique environment with a lot of students coming from the same background as I did,” said Thompson. “We understood that we had that in common, and that we were all struggling with the same things. There were plenty of times when if we couldn’t afford a textbook, we’d just be borrowing things from each other. That’s the life here. Everyone huddles together to get it done.”
Including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Gifts to the PC(USA)’s Christmas Joy Offering, a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, help Stillman to provide scholarships to students like Thompson. The annual offering distributes gifts equally to the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color.
“When Kyley enrolled at Stillman, she found a caring faculty and staff who were willing to assist her with the challenges of financial aid applications,” said Dr. Cynthia Warrick, Stillman’s president since 2017. “She found small classes with a family feel, peers and teachers who expressed support and advising that lifted her through tough moments while working on her degree.”
Without a doubt, the toughest of those moments was the death of her grandmother during Thompson’s sophomore year at Stillman.
“She was really the only support that I had,” said Thompson. “And since I had no financial help other than loans, my family said just go work, just find a job. So, I took time off and thought about not going back because I couldn’t afford it.”
Because Stillman takes to heart its commitment to remove financial barriers and assist every one of its students in meeting the cost of their education, Dr. Paige McCormick, associate professor of English and wife of the college’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Dr. Clifford Mark McCormick, intervened personally in Thompson’s situation.
“Dr. McCormick was crucial to keeping me in school,” Thompson recalled with gratitude. “There were things she knew that she could do to find me financial help, like getting me more scholarships and loans. There were even times in my junior and senior year that Dr. McCormick found ways for me to get financial assistance with my rent.”
Thompson also praised Dr. Thomas Jennings, associate professor of history at Stillman.
“Dr. Jennings was also very helpful in keeping me in school,” she said. “He was always involved in making sure I was on the right academic track and that I was pursuing all of the opportunities available to me, including graduate school.”
Although Thompson graduated two years later than originally planned, she graduated. With honors. And with a presidential fellowship to do historical research at Stillman waiting for her.
“Maybe I didn’t deserve it, but it felt great,” she said. “I knew my grandmother would be very proud of me, and I knew my degree would take me other places.”
As Stillman continues to meet the needs of its diverse and gifted student body, the college is proud of its affiliation with a denomination that has historically and consistently valued education and learning.
“All of us at Stillman College are guided by our commitment to access and opportunity when it comes to learning and to doing all that we can to provide that access for students,” said Dr. Clifford Mark McCormick. “This is just one of the ways that Stillman lives out our Presbyterian heritage and our mission to educate and serve students as whole persons, not just what they need in the classroom, but what they need as children of God seeking purpose and meaning in their lives.”
As for Thompson, one thing is certain. Her God-given purpose includes further education.
Currently working toward her Master of Library and Information Science degree at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, she also puts in a full 40 hours a week digitizing the archives of Stillman’s William H. Sheppard Library.
When she learned in May that Stillman couldn’t afford an archivist, she wrote up a job proposal that was immediately accepted. It’s a role in which she hopes to continue if an additional grant comes through to further fund the position.
“I love history,” she added. “I love being able to put the pieces together. As the college’s first official archivist, I will be able to give Stillman the ‘TLC’ that it has needed.”
Asked how she juggles such a demanding schedule, Thompson just smiled.
“I manage somehow,” she said. “And besides, most of my classes are at night. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it.”
Thompson maintains that had it not been for her grandmother — and the generous support Stillman receives from the PC(USA)’s Christmas Joy Offering — her story might have taken a different turn.
“The money you give goes directly to students and keeps them in college,” she said. “A lot of them struggled a lot. It took a great deal of effort to get to college and stay there, especially because of financial and even family barriers. Like me, many students often feel like they are hanging by a thread. Your donation fills in the threads and makes a rope — a lifeline of financial assistance.”
by Emily Enders Odom, Presbyterian News Service