Commitment to Access Shines Through Emergence Scholarship: First Scholar to Graduate

Tonya and Stephen Keener stand outside for a photo
Tonya and Stephen Keener ’77 hope to break down barriers to Davidson for students of color.

Stephen Keener ’77 and his wife, Tonya, have made a significant commitment to support the Emergence Scholarship, which honors the African American experience at Davidson.

“When I was a student, there were a handful of students of color,” said Stephen. “I was not aware of what it was like for them to get to Davidson and the challenges they experienced while on campus. But over time, I started to understand, and articles about the recent passing of [the first African American student to graduate from Davidson] Wayne Crumwell ’68 and about Kaneisha Gaston ’13, the first graduate who called the Town of Davidson ‘home,’ have been really important.”

Tonya recalls talking with students who could not have considered Davidson without scholarship support at the college’s 50 Years of Integration event in 2012.

“These conversations made me think there are probably countless African American students who have not considered Davidson, but for whom it could be the perfect fit,” she said. “I grew up in North Carolina and did not hear about Davidson until I arrived at UNC Charlotte as a student. So it made me think about kids I know. Do they know Davidson? Would they have a shot?”

The Keeners’ passion lies with organizations and initiatives that are aligned with their core values, including education, public health and social justice.

“It matters to us that people who think they may not have an opportunity get that myth dispelled,” Stephen said.

Emergence Scholar to Graduate

Obai Kamara ’17 was named the inaugural recipient of the Emergence Scholarship in the fall of 2013. A member of the football team, Kamara has held leadership positions in campus organizations, such as the Black Student Coalition, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Patterson Court Council.The Rockville, Maryland, native, who also competed in rugby, wrestling and lacrosse before Davidson, attributes the opportunities he has had over the past four years to the scholarship support.

“The Emergence Scholarship made coming to an incredible academic institution such as Davidson financially feasible for my parents and me,” he said.

Kamara, who said he chose Davidson because he was seeking the best education possible, has pursued off-campus research opportunities, including a summer experience at Alabama A&M University. After Davidson, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue his dream of becoming an engineer.

Love of Service

Keener remembers filling out his application to attend Davidson–the school he decided on after his dad tricked him into a Davidson visit and a 45-minute conversation with an admission counselor. It was the toughest application he had ever encountered.

“I was so happy when I got it done and mailed it in,” he said. “A week or so later, I got a large packet in the mail from Davidson. Inside that envelope was the real application for admission.”

The hard work paid off, and Keener and his classmates remain close today. They share a love for Davidson and for service, according to Keener’s wife, Tonya, who did not attend Davidson but has adopted the college as her own.

“When I started meeting his classmates, I quickly realized they were all involved in helping others and improving their communities,” she said. “They are living out what Davidson taught them, and the impact of the college on their daily lives is a very real thing.”

The Keeners live in Charlotte and work in the public health field–Stephen as medical director for the Mecklenburg County Health Department, and Tonya as a wellness consultant following several years with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The couple recognizes the efforts underway to make Davidson a more diverse place, representative of the country and the world, and they hope their gift continues to move that important work forward.

“We wanted to do something small that may lead to large change in a student’s life,” said Tonya. “Students of color need Davidson and, just as importantly, Davidson needs students of color. In order for everyone to understand history and the roles we all have in building our future, we have to talk to one another and learn from our unique experiences.”

About the Emergence Scholarship

Created by African American alumni in celebration of the achievements of Davidson alumni of color, the Emergence Scholarship supports students through The Davidson Trust, with preference given to individuals from historically underrepresented populations at Davidson.

The idea for creating the scholarship was born out of ACE, Davidson’s Alumni of Color Engagement initiative, and it was conceived by alumni Rusty Lindsey ’76 and Earl Wooten ’84.

The Davidson Trust makes it possible for talented students from all backgrounds to imagine coming to Davidson, and for graduates to plan for their futures based on their interests and passions. The program meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need through grants and campus employment.