A Lifetime of Giving to Students

New Scholarship Honors Dr. Juel Smith for a Lifetime of Giving to Students — Courtesy of Husband Dr. John Smith

Dec. 20, 2018

There was a time in Dr. Juel Smith’s life when her path forward was clouded by uncertainty — fueled only by faith, perseverance and the pressing need to provide for her five young children. Her husband had passed away unexpectedly and, amid the sudden weight of single motherhood, she did the one thing that made sense amid a mountain of sorrow.

The young woman then named Juel Hickman Shannon focused on her education, working on a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Oklahoma’s Langston University, the only historically black college in the state. She felt sure that she could find a teaching position somewhere and return equilibrium to a household shattered by tragedy.

But she could never have imagined how her world was about to change. The stage was set for a serendipitous crossing of paths with an up-and-coming music instructor, Professor John Smith who taught a required class at Langston. “Well, Juel was in my class, the only time I taught summer school,” he explains. “I didn’t notice her except she was one of several smart students. But later on, our paths crossed again in a social context where we talked about her studies. And suddenly I said, ‘Wait, you were in my class!’ She began talking to me about her background and aspirations, and everything just went from there.”

Where it took them is on a remarkable journey, indeed — a story entwining enduring love, more than 45 years of marriage, children who are college professors, a school principal, an airline engineer, a city supervisor and a social counselor, while they for decades enriched the lives of many students in special ways. But this particular tale focuses on the impact Juel Smith has had on so many at the University of South Florida, and the Tampa Bay community. It celebrates the person she is today — one who can look back with deep satisfaction on a legacy of enhancing student, faculty and community constituent opportunities that is interwoven in USF’s fabric.

Her husband wouldn’t want it told any other way. In fact, he has chosen to honor the woman he admires so deeply and with whom he has shared so many adventures by establishing the Dr. Juel Hickman Shannon Smith Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship is designed to support fulltime undergraduate students pursuing a major in Africana Studies in USF’s College of Arts and Sciences or a major in Elementary Education in USF’s College of Education on the Tampa campus. In creating it, John Smith penned a powerful portrait of his wife in an accompanying letter to the USF Foundation:

“I am exceedingly proud of her as a mother, student, academician and community leader,” it reads in one section. “Simply stated, she is my hero. Determined and ambitious, she courageously transformed her life from adversity to proud achievements. … Her life mission and active endeavors to serve neglected humanity and societies are admirable. People readily respond to her loving kindness, graciousness and generous spirit.

“I choose to establish this endowment at USF to acknowledge the profound academic foundation gained through three earned USF degrees, and challenging and rewarding professional achievements there during 32 years of employment. Her remarkable USF efforts represent intense and genuine concerns for students, faculty, education, African Americans, women and community.”

Juel Smith smiles modestly when her husband extols her virtues in conversation, as on a recent afternoon at their north Tampa home, complete with paintings and sculptures, many by eminent African-Americans, a picture collage of them with international figures, and two walls of laminated diplomas and awards from their distinguished careers.

Juel commented: “I am still in shock! To have an endowed scholarship in my name — unbelievable! We had discussed ways we could assist USF students who face continuing financial difficulties to complete degrees. So John proposed establishing a USF endowed scholarship in my name based on my legacy. I said no we are not going to do that, not for me. But after some convincing, I got excited, and because of his gesture, I am truly honored. He knows how hard I work to make a positive difference in people’s lives, disadvantaged, students and women. I have an uncontrolled passion to give and help people. I am really blessed to be recognized this way. And to know that this financial assistance will be available to a student in perpetuity is particularly rewarding”

Savannah Vanholten, a USF junior majoring in Africana Studies, is the Smith’s inaugural scholarship recipient and knows first-hand what an impact their generosity has made. “It shows me that I’m not just a number, but a student with a future,” she says. “It’s absolutely amazing to know how they’ve helped USF through the years, and I’m so honored to receive this scholarship. I can’t wait to be successful so I can do the same for somebody else at USF one day.”

The Smiths have been making a difference for many years since they met at Langston. After marrying in Oklahoma, the coupled moved to Tampa, where John Smith had been recruited by the USF music department in a newly created position to teach tuba in 1972. “We’d never been to Tampa, but we came on faith,” he recalls. And once there, Juel promptly earned her master’s in counselor education. “I loved USF and told them they really needed to hire me,” she says with a laugh. Later she did receive an appointment in the USF counseling center and the start of a new chapter – the first of several monumental challenges.

But after two years at USF, John received a Florida State University System grant-in-aid to complete doctorate coursework at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, complete with a full salary and expenses. Just like that, the entire family moved halfway across the country for the next year. But the counseling center kept Juel’s job open, and that’s where she returned to dedicate her life to providing help and guidance to students. During that span, she took on a landmark project her husband had started but had stalled.

Utilizing her formidable interpersonal and organizational skills, she created the Institute on Black Life and the Center for Africa and the Diaspora — with a mission to bridge USF’s resources with the needs of the black community and Africa, and provide support for black students and faculty. The IBL produced an annual black family conference, the campus Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebrations each year and a weekly television show (The Bridge), and  sponsored nationally renowned guest speakers and artists. The African center sponsored international faculty research travel to Gabon that resulted in a USF and International Center for Bantu Civilization collaboration.

John, meanwhile, rose to the position of dean of what was then known at USF as the College of Fine Arts, but change was afoot again. He was recruited and hired in 1999 to become the president of Fisk University, an HBCU institution in Nashville, Tenn. Once again, they packed up and followed the road to a new opportunity. “I retired at USF and went to Fisk and gave them a good two years of service,” he says. “And fortunately, I talked Juel into coming. She was a great, dynamic First Lady. As always, her focus was, ‘How can I help the students?’ She was extremely effective in community relations, organizing special campus activities and philanthropic fund raising including funding new uniforms for the renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers.”

Juel found a new way to assist others upon returning to USF in the early 2000s, motivated by the many issues faced by professional women, including knowing how to build and manage wealth. Based on research, she worked with USF leadership to put forth the vision and plan to establish the USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy program, serving as its founding executive director and inviting Carol Morsani to become one of its founding members and first chair.

“Juel came to me with Julie Gillespie (now Associate Vice President of University Development) and asked me to be involved, and hopefully to get more people from the community involved,” she recalls. “It was a very special and memorable time working with Juel to help WLP in that formative stage — and very gratifying for us to see how the organization has grown over the years.”

Together they raised an extraordinary amount of money in the first eighteen months to create scholarships and programmatic initiatives for women faculty and students. In addition, Juel became the first African American woman to serve as president of the Tampa Athena Society, while also serving as international director of The LINKS, Inc., building over 50 schools in South Africa and Nigeria, serving on the International Habitat for Humanity Board, and was inducted to the Hillsborough County Women’s Hall of Fame.

“She is always giving to others,” says her husband. And that is why he was moved to honor a lifetime of giving by the woman who has always inspired him — and so many others — along the way.


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