Student Profile: Breanna Wilkerson, C'2015
In a life marked by upheaval, as a teen, Wilkerson began dreaming of something nobody in her family had achieved: a college education. After all, she already knew she wanted a career in public health researching the incidence and treatment of HIV /AIDS among women of color, after the premature death of her mother from the disease.
“I found Spelman through my own research,” says the San Antonio, Texas, native who lived with her grandmother to avoid foster care placement. “I didn’t know anybody that went to Spelman.” While balancing high school and, along with her brother, taking care of their disabled grandmother, Wilkerson learned of Spelman’s top ranking for African-American women going into healthcare professions. She applied, was accepted, and packed her bags for Atlanta.
“I was in a bad place,” she remembers. “I can’t get any private loans because I’m independent, and I don’t have a co-signer or any real credit....Brewer Scholars
saved my education.”
It’s been two years now since Wilkerson arrived on campus. These days, she continues to exemplify a purpose-filled life. The professors guiding her women’s studies major and public health minor recognize her hard work. What may not be as visible is her focus outside of the classroom in her work as a resident adviser, her service on her class council, her position as a social justice associate, and her commitment to Spelman’s Student Health Associates and Peer Educators organization also known as SHAPE.
Wilkerson has also found time and energy to start a Spelman chapter of GlobeMed, the first such chapter on the campus of a historically Black college or university. “It’s a grassroots organization with a mission to end healthcare disparities in underserved communities,” she explains. Through GlobeMed, Wilkerson will partner with a community in Kumasi, Ghana, on a public health intervention.
“These purposeful students are on a mission. But as first-generation students they face several challenges, including carrying a lot of responsibility,” says Spelman board chair Rosalind Gates Brewer, who established a scholarship to support students like Wilkerson. “When they think the odds are against them, I think they’re in their favor because they are fighters. Nine times out of ten these students are breaking the mold when they come to Spelman College.”
And while most students worry about grades, Wilkerson’s path has also involved finding solutions to very real concerns about money. In the middle of spring semester last year, she thought she wouldn’t be able to continue at Spelman because of financing. “I was in a bad place,” she remembers. “I can’t get any private loans because I’m independent, and I don’t have a co-signer or any real established credit.”
Wilkerson had begun packing her bags to leave when she learned she’d received a Rosalind Gates Brewer Scholarship, one of nine annual grants (eight at $10,000 and one at $20,000) established by the chair of Spelman’s board of trustees and renewable each year. “I was thankful and blessed,” she says of the scholarship, which is awarded to first-generation college students. “The Brewer Scholarship saved my education. I don’t know what I would have done or where I would have gone.” Instead of leaving Spelman, she was able to dive back into her coursework.
Grateful, Wilkerson sees scholarships not just as important in her life but as an important equalizer in the world of education: “They allow students who come from underserved communities to have the same chance as those around them, dispelling the assumption that you have to be rich to be smart.”
Wilkerson, talks about her experience at GlobalMed's 2014 GROW Institute on February 22 – 23, 2014 in Chicago:
"There are not many spaces in this world constructed for me. As a parentless, low-income, first generation student and black woman, I find myself in a reoccurring situation of having to negotiate or explain my seemingly complex narrative. Not only has GlobeMed become a central and necessary space for my vision and voice, but it serves as the most consistent driving force in my intellectual activism."
This article originally appeared in Spelman's 2012-2013 Report on Philanthropy.