‘Opportunity ... foundation ... family’: CHANCE program at NIU celebrates 50 years

November 11, 2018

DeKALB – On Saturday night, the staff, students and alumni of the CHANCE program at Northern Illinois University celebrated the program’s impact with a surprisingly massive party.

This year marks the 50th year the program has helped students from underprivileged backgrounds get a shot at a college education. While the original plan was to hold the anniversary celebration in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, the event was moved to the Holmes Student Center due to an unexpectedly large turnout.

Key figures from CHANCE’s history gathered in the banquet hall to remember the origins and legacy of the program. Founded in 1968, CHANCE was the brainchild of NIU President Rhoten Smith and McKinley “Deacon” Davis, who Smith appointed to help recruit minority and low-income students to the university.

On Saturday night, NIU’s current president, Lisa Freeman, reaffirmed the university’s commitment to Smith and Davis’ vision, announcing a new scholarship program, the CHANCE Program’s 50th Anniversary Fund, which will be fueled by alumni and community donations

“I am so proud of the CHANCE program. To me, it speaks to NIU’s core values. NIU was at the leading edge in 1968 when they recognized that talent is universal, but opportunity isn’t,” Freeman said. “And when Deacon Davis and Rhoten Smith said, ‘We’re going to make sure that students who have potential and talent have the opportunity to get a college degree,’ it was not the most popular idea.

“They did this at a time when it was not safe, it was not fashionable, and the program has endured for 50 years.”

At least two individuals who helped uphold Smith and Davis’ vision through those five decades were in the building Saturday. CHANCE’s current director, Dr. Denise Hayman, and Leroy Mitchell, who served as director from 1982 to 2008, were involved with the anniversary celebration.

Hayman and Mitchell highlighted the significance of dedicated counselors and motivated students.

“The counseling is the important component,” Mitchell said. “It works because of the counseling. It would be a sin to bring 500 kids into the university and then turn them loose and say, ‘Good luck.’ So, the counselors, from the very first day, work with those young people.”

Hayman agreed, and added that the CHANCE program has often shown that students are capable of defying conventional wisdom.

“What NIU has done is kind of defy the myth; a lot of times people think that you need to have the highest ACT score and the highest grade point average,” she said. “And that’s important, but there’s also students that are motivated if they’re given an opportunity and a chance to come to college and to earn a college degree and this exemplifies that.”

Farouk Olaywola is one of those students. The 2017 graduate said CHANCE played a decisive role in his success.

“It was definitely opportunity, definitely foundation, definitely family. It just kept providing me with hope. Because if I didn’t have this opportunity, who knows if I would have gotten into college,” Olaywola said.

Cherish Jackson, who sat next to Olaywola throughout the banquet, agreed. She was the first person in her family to “go off to college,” that is, go to a university without first putting a few years in at community college. She now has double masters degrees, in business administration and international management.

“Growing up, coming from Chicago, a lot of just thought, ‘Go to community college because that’s all that you’re worth,’ ” Jackson said. “So, being able to come to a university and spread my wings and grow into the woman I am today, meant the world, and I wouldn’t have been able to be this far in my life if CHANCE hadn’t given me that opportunity to open up my eyes and my mind.”

Endorsements such as those would have “meant everything” to Rhoten Smith, according to his son, Tyler Smith, who was in attendance at the celebration.

“Both he and Deacon, I know, would be thrilled to see that the seed that they planted has grown into what it is today. It’s really remarkable,” Smith said. “They started it, but then you had to have all these people continue it and nurture it, and make it grow. And so there are hundreds of heroes of the CHANCE program.”

And many of them were in the Holmes Student Center on Saturday night.

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