As CEO of Avondale Mills, her father, J. Craig Smith, instituted a college scholarship program for the millworkers’ most promising sons. He even paid college tuition for many of their daughters. His generosity and belief in education as a way to level the playing field left an impression on Smith.
Smith believed, like her father, education was Alabama’s greatest resource. She also viewed education as crucial for Alabama to maintain a competitive edge in a global economy.In 2004, following her father’s example, Smith founded the J. Craig and Page T. Smith Scholarship Foundation with a $10 million endowment, also naming it the beneficiary of her $30 million dollar charitable remainder trust.
A tribute to her father’s legacy, the Smith Foundation provides up to full tuition, room, board and books at select Alabama colleges for graduating Alabama high school students who show excellence in character and have contributed to their community through service, despite facing personal challenges. Graduating seniors who have a minimum C+ average are eligible, and each year the foundation’s Board of Trustees chooses deserving students from more than 1,000 applications.
What makes this innovative scholarship program different is the fact these students are not chosen based on pure academic merit or financial need. These students, often first in their families to attend college, have been committed to community service in the face of overwhelming personal circumstances — often holding down a job for the family’s survival and still finding time to volunteer.
During the selection process, a subjective component plays a key part in each decision, says Ahrian Dudley, the foundation’s executive director, chief legal counsel and a longtime friend of Smith. “Is this a good kid who survived beyond what you would expect and thrived helping others? Does he have that extra spark that means he’s going to make it?”
The foundation carefully considers college choices for each student to ensure the best fit. To remain part of the program, students must maintain a minimum C+ grade average and continue to be involved in a civic role. “It is an accountability program, not a welfare program,” says Dudley.
As these students navigate their way through college, they shoulder more than just maintaining their grades, good behavior and community service. Often they face resentment and misunderstanding from the families and communities they’ve left behind. Many times they lack the basic necessities most college students take for granted — clothing, dorm room furniture and supplies, even adequate housing when they go home for the holidays.
Dudley says many students have been in survival mode for so long, they have built a shell around themselves. “They don’t know how to handle someone who cares and loves them and is not expecting a paycheck from them.”
This scholarship program entails more than just supplying the financial means to attend college — the program encompasses learning life skills, building self-esteem and changing ingrained cultural, social and familial stumbling blocks.
Throughout the years, Dudley and Urist McCauley, mentor and director of technical services, have acted as surrogate parents. Students have temporarily lived with them or called in the middle of the night to be taken to the emergency room. Dudley and a staff of five guide the students through mountains of paperwork, academic and social pressures, and practical problems from how to dress for an interview to which fork to use at a nice dinner. -more