Life-changing CHANCE program celebrates 50 years at NIU

Recognition dinner brings together 100 alumni, family of co-founder

More than 15,000 students in the past 50 years can call themselves college graduates because of the McKinley “Deacon” Davis CHANCE Program at NIU.

They’ve gone on to careers in every area—social sciences, government, education, business, entrepreneurship, radio, television, film, medicine, art, engineering, sports and more.

“We have the whole gamut,” CHANCE Director Denise R. Hayman said.

So many success stories. So much to celebrate.

What began as an effort to recognize 50 alumni of the program as part of a 50th anniversary celebration quickly grew into a list of more than 100 CHANCE graduates who took part. That engagement was largely symbolic of a program that has changed lives and garnered praise from anyone it’s touched.

Among several events held in honor of the 50th anniversary was Saturday’s McKinley “Deacon” Davis CHANCE Program Anniversary Recognition Dinner.

Along with a recognition of 100 CHANCE alumni, including NIU Board of Trustees Chair Wheeler Coleman, as well as the undaunted support of donors, students, staff and faculty, was live entertainment by CHANCE students.

“We celebrated a program that was birthed out of protest by students in late ’60s,” Coleman said. “CHANCE was the program that provided me and others like me the opportunity to attend NIU. I am forever grateful for the CHANCE program.”

The creators of CHANCE, McKinley “Deacon” Davis and former NIU President Rhoten Smith, set out in 1968 to offer students access to higher education and provide them with the tools to succeed. That first year, the program admitted 50 students. This fall, 504 CHANCE students began classes, chosen from a pool of about 4,700 applications.

NIU Board of Trustees Chair, Wheeler Coleman

Wheeler described CHANCE as the “consistent engine for our enrollment” the last five decades, and a credit to the “forward thinking giants” who created it.

The 50th anniversary celebration included reflections from alumni and presentations by Hayman and NIU President Lisa Freeman, who announced the creation of The CHANCE Program’s 50th Anniversary Fund.

With the goal of increasing access and opportunity to students in the program, gifts will be used to support scholarships, a critical component of retention and successful degree completion efforts, she said.

“Over the course of the 50th anniversary year, we will actively invite donors, alumni and friends to contribute and look forward to bringing you more news on the effort in the very near future,” Freeman said.

She said NIU committed to social justice and inclusion before it was “obviously fashionable or safe to do so.”

“We have been a ‘public’ university in every sense of that word, driven by the needs of the region it serves, conscious of and willing to address the reality that talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” she said.

Freeman also read a quote spoken by Smith in 1968: “A college education has now come to seem… almost indispensable for success in life… fewer and fewer will succeed. It is my conviction that the universities can and must change their thinking about how one comes to higher education. The public universities, especially, can and must find ways to make more widely available opportunities for earning this passport to the good life.”

If Smith were alive today, he’d consider CHANCE as his most meaningful contribution to education, said Smith’s son, Tyler Smith, who traveled from Colorado to attend the celebration, along with his sister, Susan Warren.

“I think, first and foremost, it demonstrates my father’s strong commitment to opening up educational opportunities to everyone,” he said. “That was just a core value of his that he communicated to both me and my sister throughout our lives.”

Along with being a close colleague of his father, Davis—a Harlem Globetrotter from 1955 to 1957, who became the director of special programs at NIU in 1968 and the college’s executive director of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1978—was a friend. He regularly visited the Smith home while Tyler Smith was growing up.

“He, being just Deacon, was just an overwhelmingly positive presence,” he said.

In the beginning, CHANCE students were recruited from 54 high schools, while the program now recruits from 434 high schools, with more than half being Chicago public schools. CHANCE identifies students who show promise for succeeding in college despite limited preparation and resources.

It takes a strong commitment by counselors, all of whom “work magic,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer and senior associate vice president at NIU.

“The students themselves, the talent they have coming to NIU and what they’re able to realize about their potential through the program is phenomenal,” she said.

Graduating in May 2019, CHANCE student Jatona Harris—the Mistress of Ceremonies for the recognition dinner—has given back to CHANCE while at NIU, serving as a CHANCE orientation leader, providing peer mentoring and working as a CHANCE student office assistant, among other activities.

She said her grades at Simeon Career Academy High School in Chicago, where she earned her high school diploma in 2015, were good, but her ACT score wasn’t at the level she needed for admittance. Without CHANCE, she said, she’s not sure if she would have ended up in college.

“It’s in the name. You really get a chance. There are so many opportunities that come with CHANCE,” said Harris, majoring in rehabilitation and disability services, with an emphasis in occupational therapy. “You meet a lot of people, and so many doors open for you.”

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