Durham’s StudentU builds a legacy of success stories

By Brittany Cowan

Education is a complex, often controversial topic for discussion, as the viewpoints of teachers, legislators, and community leaders can sometimes result in bitter conflict. In Durham County, the non-profit organization StudentU has been on a mission since 2005 to shift the conversation towards educational equity and serving student populations that may otherwise feel neglected. 

The organization offers assistance to student from grade 6 until college graduation. Programs include the Summer Academy, after-school tutoring, Year-Round Programming (YRP), mentoring opportunities, and more. StudentU also provides volunteer opportunities to college students, aspiring teachers, or trained teachers within Durham Public Schools. 

“So many teachers that are within our programming end up in Durham Public Schools, and continue to spread our values and culture within the school system,” said Brandy Luce, StudentU’s Marketing and Communications manager. “We value our relationship with DPS because we think that it is the key to making sure that all students can succeed in Durham.”  

“We ensure that we are building the systems, the networks, and making the appropriate investments city-wide for our students. They are brilliant, they are hopeful, and they are uncompromising. I think that I am a better human because of the work that we do here.”

– Student U’s Executive Director Alexandra Zagbayou

StudentU’s Executive Director Alexandra Zagbayou has been connected with the non-profit organization since her senior year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill. Zagbayou added that she was also a 6th grade Global Connect instructor, teaching StudentU’s equivalent of social studies. 

“For me, StudentU is a way for me to align my values with my action with an organization that is doing great work,” Zagbayou said. “It is a humbling experience to be able to be a small part of the students’ journey and to see them lead us and change the world.”

In order for students to be enrolled in the programs at Student U, they must be first-generation college students, obtain free or reduced-price lunch, and live in Durham County. Zagbayou added that a majority of the students that Student U serves have African American, Hispanic, or Latino backgrounds. 

Zagbayou said working at StudentU has made her “more aware” of educational disparities. 

“I have a deeper understanding of the complexities of the inequalities that are present in our society as a result of working here,” Zagbayou explained. “I am more aware of the brokenness in our society while doing this work and understanding where it happens and how it happens.” 

Zagbayou recalls visiting a StudentU alumna, now living in Washington D.C. Zagbayou has known since the student since middle school.  She proudly said the resources for college prep such as lessons financial literacy, scholarship applications, and much more helped the student tremendously upon entering her first year of college. 

Zagbayou said that StudentU continues to make connections with outside entities to help students succeed. 

“We ensure that we are building the systems, the networks, and making the appropriate investments city-wide for our students,” Zagbayou said. “They are brilliant, they are hopeful, and they are uncompromising. I think that I am a better human because of the work that we do here.” 

According to statistics provided by StudentU representatives, 100 percent of the StudentU classes from 2014-2018 have graduated from high school; and 90 percent of high school seniors in StudentU have enrolled in college, a post-secondary institution, or the military after high school. 

Lonnie Kendall, a YRP (Year-Round Programming) Family Head and teacher at StudentU, was also a former student in the organization.  

“I love everything about this program,” Kendall said. “They are non-stop involved in your life and they are with you every step of the way so you can never say that you’re on your own because they are always there to help no matter what.”

Kendall, a Durham native and Hillside High School graduate, said being a part of StudentU helped him through the college-application and college- tour processes.

“I would describe StudentU as honestly being a family,” Kendall said.

After graduating from high school, Kendall went to Kentucky for college for two years and eventually came back to Durham to work as a teacher for StudentU. 

“Teaching is my thing,” Kendall said. “And being in the classroom is my comfort zone .”

Muriel Smith, StudentU’s program director, oversees the middle school, high school, and college programs. 

“Personally, being here has given me the opportunity to step outside of a school setting and work with students across Durham Public Schools to really name what are common needs across the county,” Smith said. “I think it’s just been really beneficial for me to step outside of the classroom to get kind of a bigger lens of what’s happening in our schools and our city.” 

Smith grew up in Durham. She started working at StudentU as a college student in 2010. 

“What makes StudentU unique is the joy that is embedded in the culture of its programs,” she said. “The beautiful things about this organization is the way that we really do try to consider the whole child and also try to thoughtfully infuse joy in the work that we do.”

StudentU obtains most of its funding from grants, corporate and public donations, and investors. Luce added that the programs are free of charge for students, but there is a detailed application process. 

Organizations and businesses including PNC Bank, Wells Fargo, The Rotary Club of Durham, the Durham Arts Guild, and many more have either partnered with StudentU or provided resources for its programming and other activities. 

 “There’s so much in this community,” Luce said. “It’s family-centered and it also does so much to encourage students to find out where they can really shine and share their brilliance.”