Colleges and universities across the nation take tremendous pride in enduring traditions that help define the culture and personality of their respective institutions. Some have earned national and global reputations for producing graduates that have excelled in leadership positions in business, government, medicine, religion, science, and other professions. Others are renowned for the impressive number of athletes they produced, their success in intercollegiate athletics - or their high-stepping bands.
However, Claflin University can thank its leal and loyal alumni for a significant aspect of its growing reputation. According toU.S. News and World Report, Claflin's annual alumni giving percentage of more than 40 percent is the highest among all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).The prestigious publication has also ranked Claflin in its list of the nation's Top 10 Best HBCUs for 12 consecutive years.
Yolanda Cooper Toney and her husband, Gerald Toney, represent the philanthropic spirit that inspires alumni and non-Claflin graduates to support the University. The coupleand their childrenmade a $25,000 gift to Claflin to establish the Cooper Toney Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship pays tribute to two generations of a close-knit South Carolina family that profoundly appreciates the academic, cultural, and spiritual experiences Claflin provides.
The Cooper Toney Endowed Scholarship honors Hester Cooper Smith - Yolanda’s mother, Rupert Z. Cooper - her brother; and Yolanda. Rupert passed away on December 17, 2001.
The primary focus of the scholarship is to support education and business majors. However, if no applicants in those majors are eligible, history majors can apply for the award. More than anything, the Cooper Toney family and other contributors to the scholarship want to give to other young people what the honorees cherish most about Claflin.
Yolanda is a 1978 graduate who, like her mother, was an English major with aminor in education.Yolanda saidshe practically cut her teeth on the Claflin legacy. Her mother graduated in 1957.Yolanda's brother earned his degree in business administrationin 1986. She has other relatives who also attended Claflin.
"I probably knew Claflin University's name soon after I learned my own," said Yolanda, a retiredhigh school Englishteacher and Certified Lay Minister who lives in Memphis, Tenn. It was Cooper Smith, the matriarch, who inspired the endowment.
Her son-in-law, Gerald Toney, observed Smith's tireless crusades through the years to raise awareness and money for her alma mater.
"I have been around her more than 39 years, and I have watched her dedication to Claflin," said Toney, a graduate of The Citadel. "I am impressed by the passion of the Claflin University alumni. The entire time I have been associated with Claflin through my mother-in-law and my wife, I can tell they appreciate their Claflin education. They always try to give back, which says a lot about the school and its graduates."
Cooper Smith's post-graduate association with her alma mater includes a term on Claflin's Board of Visitors. She is a member of the Claflin University International Alumni Association (CUIAA) and has been a fundraiser for the Lake City and Florence chapters. As a membership chairperson, she recruited Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, the University's eighth president.
"He had never joined the CUIAA," Cooper Smith says. "I got him to become a member after he was appointed president."
Cooper Smith's career and personal trajectory are also noteworthy. She grew up in rural Williamsburg County, where she and five younger brothers and sisters helped their parents farm cotton, tobacco, beans, and corn. On Sundays, she attended Bethesda United Methodist Church. By high school, Cooper-Smith says she knew she wanted to be an educator, to emulate her teachers who "spoke well, dressed well. I just wanted to be like them."
She came to Claflin as the first in her family to attend college. Cooper Smith was so afraid to speak in her classes that she trembled. Aletha Worthy, the English Department advisor, challenged her to assert herself.
"She said I needed to speak out and be more confident," Cooper Smith recalled.
Claflin is an affiliate of The United Methodist Church. To Cooper Smith, the entire campus seemed to align Christian principles with the University's educational mission. Cooper Smith blossomed.
"When I got to Claflin, there was so much love, and we were a family," she said. "Everyone seemed to care about one another – the students, the professors, the dorm matrons. They really nurtured us. They wanted to ensure that everyone received an opportunity to get that education – and with the help we needed."
Claflin helped make Cooper Smith's dream come true. She taught in South Carolina public schools for 37 years, first in her native Williamsburg County and then for 32 years in Florence County. Although four of Cooper Smith's siblings graduated from colleges other than Claflin, the educator's oldest two children did attend their mother's alma mater. It was their own decision.
Cooper Toney said Claflin's United Methodist Church affiliation was prominent in her decision to travel to Orangeburg to continue her education. Worship services were not just available, but students were encouraged to attend. This helped her and others to maintain important religious traditions they learned from their parents while living away from home. The scholarship is a way for the family to honor Cooper Smith and highlight their regard for Claflin's influence on its students.
U.S. News and World Reportalso ranked Claflin No. 20 for Top Performers of Social Mobility – an indicator of advancing social mobility by enrolling and graduating large proportions of economically disadvantaged students that are awarded Pell Grants. These students launched successful careers or continued their education after earning a Claflin degree.
Although the federal Pell Grant program was instituted after Cooper Smith had graduated – she recognizes its significance. She said that her parents paid for her education from crop sales.
"When the semesters ended, I needed to have completed my classes and all of my assignments," she said. "I had to return home to work on the farm. I had to finish my Claflin journey in four years."
Her roots were rural, but many in the region recognized the value of a college education and made accommodations for it. Cooper Smith was able to return as a teacher, marry, afford a home and begin a family. She moved her ailing father into her home, drove him to doctor appointments in the new car she bought, and was able to take care of him in the last several weeks of his life. Because of Claflin, her dreams were not deferred.
"I graduated with the Claflin Confidence," she said. "I felt that I could achieve anything. I became a new person. I started talking, and I haven't stopped."
For the past 65 years, so much of her conversation has praised Claflin for enriching and transforming her life and the lives of other leal and loyal alumni.