Terri Yonge and Thomas Sweat didn’t know one another before they each took the stage to address several hundred alumni and friends at the public kickoff of The Power of Transformation campaign in October.
The two UNF students had different stories to tell but found a common theme. They illustrated for the assembled audience how individual determination combined with the opportunities presented by generous donors can transform a life. Their stories captured the essence of the $110 million campaign and underscored the life-changing potential of the community initiative.
Yonge, who is from a small town in Putnam County, described how her mother attempted to raise her, four sisters and a brother without the help of their father, who was never in the picture. Her mother was an alcoholic so Yonge’s earliest memories, she said, were of drunken parties after which her mother would disappear for days at a time.
By the time Yonge was 12, alcohol and drugs had taken complete control of her mother. Yonge was sent to a foster home and eventually placed up for adoption. At age 17 she ended up with the family that had adopted her little brother and sister.
“I can’t say that I was always sure of myself and always confident of the future. I went through a good many separate ordeals after living with my mom,” she recalled.
In high school, Yonge played the French horn in the band, was on the soccer team and managed to maintain good grades while dual-enrolled in many classes. She graduated with a 4.3 GPA only a couple classes shy of an associate of arts degree.
“I didn’t know anyone who would help me, but I was confident that my hard work would finally pay off.”
It did at UNF. Yonge received a variety of scholarships, including the First Generation Scholarship and the Martinez Scholarship. She currently maintains a 3.7 GPA and plans to teach upon graduation.
“One day soon, I will be in a classroom with a bunch of 6- and 7-year olds. I will be sure to let them know that the purpose of coming to school is to make a better life for yourself. I’m living proof of that,” she told the audience.
She was followed at the podium by student Thomas Sweat, who began his story when he was 8 years old and his father walked out on the family. “As I grew up, I watched my mother struggle to provide for us. She did the best she could, but times were tough. When I was in high school, we came very close to getting evicted from our home, which was a crime-ridden apartment. We were just days away from being homeless,” he said.
Then HabiJax came to the rescue. It provided housing while Jacksonville philanthropists Ann and David Hicks provided scholarships. Sweat still recalls the day he got a call saying the Hickses wanted to come to his home.
“My mother could not contain her emotions as she told the Hickses how happy she was that someone had given me the opportunity that she couldn’t,” he said. “As she sobbed, I remember looking at the Hickses sitting there in my house and thinking I had never before met two people so generous, so kind, so giving and yet so humble.”
Sweat embarked on his transformational experience at UNF when he took a course called The New South. It took him and 20 other UNF students to New Orleans, Birmingham and Memphis to study culture, the economy and race relations in the Deep South.
Out of that experience, Sweat said he developed a passion for justice. “That experience and other experiences here at UNF have truly transformed me into someone who wants to make the world a better place,” he said.
When Sweat graduates he plans to go to law school and eventually become a prosecutor. “I want people to feel safe again. I want to help others and make this community, our community, stronger.”
Amid a standing ovation, Sweat paid tribute to his mother for believing in him and making it possible to achieve so much at UNF.
President John Delaney used the students’ stories to focus the audience on the task being undertaken by the University. “Earlier, I announced our goal of $110 million. But I have to say it is not about the goal, it’s about what those dollars will do,” he said. “Tonight, you have witnessed two lives that have been changed. Imagine this happening to 16,000 students.”
Delaney asked the assembled alumni, friends and donors to join him in supporting the campaign. “Together, we can make a difference in thousands of lives.”