Shamara Butler Credit: Ebony

HOLLY SPRINGS – Shamara Butler always dreamed of attending a historically black college, and a choir scholarship to Rust College made that dream a reality for her. This opportunity gave her a chance to explore a different region outside the comfort zone of her home state of Minnesota.

Adding to that experience, Butler participated in an eight-week, paid internship last summer that focused on strengthening education reform.

“It [the program] gave me more than I really expected,” said Butler. “I’m just happy it gave me the opportunity to be able to do and learn more about education reform. The strength of our nation significantly, it depends on the vitality of the education system, and I think it’s really important that we think of things like that.”

The United Negro College Fund, the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization for students of color, teamed with the Walton Family Foundation for a leadership and development paid internship for African-Americans at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, who are interested in education reform.

Walton-UNCF K-12 Education Fellowship Program aims to “build a robust pipeline of high-achieving African Americans engaged in education reform in America,” their website states. This program places participants in K-12 educational organizations.

Earlier this month, this program was named No. 3 among the top 10 summer fellowships for students in the country, according to, a website that provides information on professional and academic fellowships.

Butler is a senior social work major and the current Miss Rust College.

After hearing of the fellowship through one of her social work colleagues, Butler decided to apply. With the program, she expected to learn about education reform and how she could apply it to her major. But the internship also introduced her to new experiences, she said.

Students received a stipend of $4,000 over the eight-week period. The College Fund covered costs of summer travel and summer housing.

Those who are selected must be a junior with a 3.0 or higher GPA, have a letter of recommendation from a school administrator or faculty member and have leadership experience within their college campus or community.

This internship exposes fellows to careers in K-12 education in different organizations and schools such as Teach For America, Achievement First, Public Charter Schools and Black Alliance For Educational Options. Students are deployed in cities throughout the country — the District of Columbia, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Chicago, Memphis and Nashville.

Butler worked at Gateway University, the first open enrollment, public charter high school focused on computer science and information technology in Memphis, during its launch.

She said she recruited more than 100 students to the school, consulted with other entities to make partnerships with the school and researched different policies other successful schools had to ensure Gateway University would have a “strong, firm foundation.”

“It was difficult, but it was fun to be able to call people like Whole Foods … to set up partnerships to make sure students have a successful start and a healthy start throughout the school year,” Butler said.

“I would research different companies that have discounted prices with healthy snack options. … We wanted to be able to have great resources available to families, students, teachers and faculty.”

While Butler enjoyed her time at Gateway University, it also exposed her to the difficulties that new charter schools face such as access to certain resources, finding suitable buildings and accommodating students with special needs.

Dr. Sosepriala (SoSo) Dede, president, founder and CEO of Gateway University, said they learned from Butler as much as she learned from them.

“She got to see a unique process, and the fellowship did a great job of selecting her and the other fellows,” said Dede. “Her service was invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on it.”

Dede added that this program should continue to other cities and organizations.

Before the internship, students in the program attended a three-day student leadership conference in Washington, D.C., to help them become successful interns and professionals. This training ranges from enhancing critical thinking skills and verbal and written communication to improving networking skills and leadership styles, the website states.

During the internship, students participated in education reform case competitions and networking opportunities, and received guidance from a career coach.

Butler said she learned to practice self-reflection at all times and to be professional in any scenario.

“I think those things were always in the back of my mind at the lunch table with the CEO and director of the school. I never ordered anything outrageous. Pretty much keep it simple,” she said.

“I didn’t try to outdo the next person. I tried to do my very best and show up and be authentic … be open to and willing to learn even more.”

One of the most important things she took away from the program was the gift of feedback, she said.

“I thought it was profound because we don’t always receive feedback very well, sometimes you get defensive, but I think it’s important to always be in tune with yourself and practice that self-reflection,” she said.

“So when someone does come to you and say something, instead of getting defensive, in some ways you can probably can say, ‘honestly, yes, that is true,’ because you’re already in tune with yourself.”

Taliah Givens Credit: LinkedIn

There will be additional post-graduation coaching services for 2017 fellows, said Taliah Givens, program director for the UNCF-Walton K-12 Fellowship. This includes helping with resumes, interview prepping and searching for jobs or graduate schools.

Butler plans to go to graduate school and obtain a PhD in social work after her graduation in May 2018 and to stay connected to the staff at UNCF and her fellow graduates of the program.

Before 2014, students were recruited only from UNCF institutions in New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and North Carolina. Once more money was received, the program expanded to places such as Mississippi.

Launching as the UNCF Social Enterprise for Youth in 2010, the program initially focused on nonprofit social enterprise, said Givens.

After the Walton Family Foundation became the primary funder of the program, the two organizations decided to focus on K-12 education and education reform. The final name change — The Walton-UNCF K-12 Fellowship — was made in 2014.

“[We] developed and redeveloped to just look at education reform and education reform organizations and those who are looking at innovative ways to make sure students get quality education and to diversity the field,” said Givens told Mississippi Today.

She acknowledged that many organizations support African-American students, but more students need exposure to training in the work space.

The program has the capacity to serve almost 200 students.

In addition to the Walton Family Foundation, 30 other nonprofits, education and school policy organizations and education think tanks have contributed to the success of the program, Givens said.

Program administrators hope to expand to the West Coast, add more professional development opportunities for alumni, work with public school districts and create teacher residency spaces.

Editor’s note: The Walton Family Foundation is a funder of Mississippi Today.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.