What's New With Student U

  • Celebrating The W.G. Pearson Center Legacy

    The Durham community and Student U gathered on October 20, 2018 to celebrate the Re-Opening of The W.G. Pearson Center, honor its history, and imagine a future where all students in Durham can succeed.

    In 2017, in partnership with the Durham Public Schools, Durham County, and Self-Help Credit Union, Student U has built a home at The W.G. Pearson Center. By becoming a permanent resident of and thoroughly renovating The W.G. Pearson Center, the building that has housed our programming and staff for three years, Student U will enhance its current programming and continue to improve educational outcomes for Durham students. 

    In order to empower the leaders of tomorrow and effectively march forward towards a Durham in which all students can succeed, we must first look backwards to understand the values and vision of the individuals whose legacy we are inheriting by being the stewards of this beautiful building.  

    The W.G. Pearson Center is named after William Gaston Pearson who was born as a slave on a Durham County plantation.  At the age of 21, after being self-taught throughout childhood, he continued his education at Shaw University.  Upon graduating, Pearson dedicated his life to ensuring others could receive a quality education. In 1886, Pearson created The Royal Knights, a progressive reform group that focused on helping southern African-Americans advance socially and economically.  As a result of his decades of teaching and leading schools, William Gaston Pearson became known as “Durham’s Black Superintendent.” Pearson empowered young black students with a thirst and demand for the rigorous and enriching education they deserved until the end of his career. Pearson spent his lifetime working to increase opportunities for those around him, and ever since, the building named for him has continued to house his value of education, fierce belief in all students, and hope of a better Durham.

    John Howard was the principal of the Pearson School in 1986 when it was named a national School of Excellence by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. When interviewed by the Durham Morning Herald, Howard said the secret to their success was weekly collaboration,"to agree on what [teachers] will teach, when and how." He continued, "They decide what works and what doesn't. Teachers are accountable to each other. Their classrooms are not islands."This commitment to providing an excellent education for young people in a collaborative environment where best practices are shared and commitments are held is what we hope to build in our re-imagined version of The W.G. Pearson Center.

    In 2009, Casey Barr-Rios was part of the first graduating class of the W.G Pearson Middle School and in 2017, she became one of the first Student U college graduates. Ms. Barr-Rios is now a full-time employee of Student U, committed to honoring the building’s past and crafting its future. As Ms. Barr-Rios shares, “William Gaston Pearson was a man that devoted his life to the empowerment of young people through education. As a student at W.G. Pearson and Student U, I was constantly reminded of how education was the way to changing my life. There was not a moment when I walked through these hallways that I was not reminded to chase my dreams without fear of failure. Not only was I taught to better myself through education, but I was also taught to lift those around me and transform my community. No matter how successful in life we may be, we must never forget where we came from and give back, change, and transform our communities. Student U and W.G. Pearson were two of the most influential parts of my life during my middle school years. Now, two spaces become one.”

    These are just a few examples of the many legacies that The Center’s history holds when it comes to academic success and advocacy for a better Durham. As we continue this work in creating a better future for our community’s children, we hope that we will do these legacies justice, building on the strong foundation laid before us. 

     We understand that alone, Student U cannot adequately honor these legacies to fulfill their vision for Durham. Therefore, Student U has sought partners to join together at The Center to combat systemic racism and structural inequalities in service of a Durham where all children can succeed. Individually, tenants of The Center will continue their work to achieve their desired goals. Collectively, tenants will form a consortium of like-minded organizations, sharing best practices and advocating for policies and investments to enhance systems that enable all people to thrive. 

    When reflecting on the vision for The Center, Student U Executive Director Alexandra Zagbayou states, “I couldn’t be more humbled and energized by the vision our community is building for The W.G. Pearson Center and grateful for the partners who will be joining forces with us to make it come to fruition. My highest aspiration is that The Center becomes a model for working with students, families and communities intergenerationally to ensure children in our communities have pathways to long-term success.”

    Over the past year, Student U has engaged with members of the Hayti community, Durham leaders, and long-time partners to dream fearlessly about what can happen at The Center. The results form the vision for the building’s future. The Center will remain a youth-centered space that houses activities and programs that enrich the lives and outcomes of young people while being accessible to the surrounding community of neighbors and organizations. 

    When considering what can be accomplished at The Center, Bishop Clarence Laney, Jr., pastor of the neighboring Monument of Faith Church since 1996, states, “when I heard that Student U purchased the building, I was excited because of the life that would come back to the building. Going forward, I think it has the capabilities to once again serve the community. There are many spaces needed for meetings, social events, dramatizations, and all of those can be possible in the community once again as a result of The W.G. Pearson Center being open.”

    County Manager Wendell Davis agrees. He believes that this equity hub can be, “one more contributing factor to bringing the old Fayetteville corridor back to life because the truth of the matter is we have seen a lot of great growth and development occur within our downtown and throughout Durham, and it just seems like a natural progression for us to begin to think about how we move along that progression to Fayetteville Street, connecting North Carolina Central Campus and other things along that corridor with our great downtown.” 

    Ms. Barr-Rios knows what is possible: “At The Center, students will be empowered to own their education in order to pursue their dreams and become change makers in this community. We will become tomorrow’s heroes.”

    Watch speeches from The W.G. Pearson Re-Opening Events



  • Building a Strong Foundation: Announcing our Partners at The W.G. Pearson Center

    For almost a century, The W.G. Pearson Center has been a place for Durham youth to learn and thrive. In 2017, in partnership with the Durham Public Schools, Durham County, and Self-Help Credit Union, Student U became the master tenant of The Center and is now preparing to welcome partners into the newly renovated building.
    William Gaston Pearson spent his lifetime advocating for the rights of African-American students and working to increase opportunities for those around him. The building named for him will continue to house his value of education, fierce belief in all students, and hope of a better Durham. Alone, we cannot adequately honor William Gaston Pearson and fulfill his vision for Durham. Today, we are honored to share with you our first cohort of partners. These organizations were selected not only because of the incredible work they have been doing in our community, but also because of the bold vision they have for young people and their families, The W.G. Pearson Center, and our Durham community. Together, we look forward to making our visions come to fruition.
    As we build a new community, we also felt it important to mark this new beginning with a new logo to represent the independent identity we hope The Center develops over time. We centered the building and its date of construction because it was considered one of the most sophisticated exterior designs for any school building in Durham when built and to honor the long legacy and history we have inherited. The rays exemplify the vision we have for The W.G. Pearson Center to be a positive impact that radiates throughout our neighborhood and the Durham community. 

    Introducing the first cohort of partners:
    The first is Village of Wisdom, led and founded by William Jackson. VOW describes itself as "a family-organizing and advocacy entity working to eliminate racial injustices in schools. To this end, we develop tools and resources that students, parents and teachers use to create learning environments for Black and Brown learners." At Student U, we believe that structural racism is at the root of the barriers our students face to reaching educational success. We are excited to have VOW in our village with their passion for empowering families with tools to successfully advocate for their children in schools. In addition to this, we are energized by VOW's vision for what is possible at The W.G. Pearson Center. In their application they wrote, "It is easy for us to envision working on Durham-specific collective impact efforts with partners at The Center, particularly around racial justice in Durham Public Schools. When we think about being in a building with Student U and other values-driven organizations in Durham, we think about an exchange of ideas and networks, and a culture of collaboration and constant growth." We're lucky to have them as partners. 

    The second is Book Harvest, led and founded by Ginger Young. Book Harvest believes that books are essential to children’s healthy development and well-being and that all children deserve to grow up in book-rich homes. To that end, they work to remove barriers to book ownership, to fuel a lifelong love of reading among America’s children that will enable success in school and in life. We were drawn to this line in their application, "Here is the vision we would hope to share with others at The Center: A Durham in which every resident is valued, respected, and civically involved. A Durham in which every parent has easy access to the essential tools, knowledge, and support to stimulate her child’s healthy development from birth and to steward her child through a successful childhood experience. A Durham devoted to two-generation support in which parents and children alike have easy access to the essential tools, knowledge, and support to realize whole family health and prosperity, including financial stability and stable housing. A Durham in which transformation is led by the community, in which decisions about the community are made with and by the community." We are lucky to have them as partners. 

    The Third is Rebuild Fellowship, founded and led by Chuck Reed. Rebuild's mission to advance the Kingdom of God by making disciples who receive, respond, and reproduce The Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the welfare of the city of Durham and surrounding communities. Of the organizations we have met, Rebuild has had the clearest vision for building community with neighbors and supporting the organizations housed in the building. In our meeting, Chuck shared a deep desire to make sure the neighbors felt welcomed and at home in the building by leading and hosting gatherings at The Center to build relationships with our direct community. We are lucky to have them as partners. 

  • Creating Community

    We have now been at The W.G. Pearson Center for a little over a month, and it is truly starting to feel like home. With every meeting and event, our team gets to welcome more and more members of the Student U family into the building and be energized by their reactions. All of our dreams about the community we hope to create here are slowly starting to take shape. While we couldn't be happier about that, we know that the work of building a community here has yet to begin.

    The community we seek to build is one rooted in support, trust, love, accountability, collaboration, openness, joy, transparency, safety, communication, inspiration, and vulnerability. We want all partners and patrons of our building to feel seen and valued for their presence. We want our building to be a judgement-free zone where people, students, parents, and staff are able to be their authentic selves. We want this community to feel like home for everyone. I am constantly inspired and humbled by the opportunity we have as stewards of this building to make this vision come together.

    And we know that we cannot do it alone. The W.G. Pearson Center will only be able to reach its bold vision when other people join alongside us, add to this vision, co-own it with us and partner with us to article the shared values, behaviors and activities that will enable that vision to come to fruition. We know that this work will not happen overnight. It will require sustained and intentional work from all of us. We are ready for it.

    Next week, we will share with you the incredible organizations in our community who will become our partners on this journey to building a community at The Center. In the meantime, don't forget to join us for the Re-Opening Celebration on October 20th. This event is open to everyone!!! Please share it widely and come fellowship with us. 

    All the best, 
    Alexandra Zagbayou

    Join us as we celebrate the re-opening of The W.G. Pearson Center Saturday, October 20th at 1pm.  
    600 East Umstead Street, Durham, NC 27701

  • Building On A Strong Foundation

     Student U staff share what they are excited for in their new home at The W.G. Pearson Center.

    As we settle into our new home and prepare to welcome students and new partners I am taking a moment to look back on the history of The W.G. Pearson Center to understand the values and vision of the individuals whose legacy we are inheriting by being the stewards of this beautiful building.

    Last summer while conducting some community listening sessions to inform our vision for The W.G. Pearson Center, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Pam and Ms. Debra. Both women attended Pearson School and shared stories of students playing softball on the field during the summer and the custodian having a house on the campus to watch over the building. I loved hearing their memories of this building. Every day, as I walk under the W.G. Pearson Elementary School sign etched into the entrance's concrete, I am reminded that this building, opened in 1928 as the segregated school for Black students, has a rich history and legacy worth knowing, sharing, and preserving.

    One of those stories is that the Pearson School, as it was previously referred to, was named a national School of Excellence in 1986 by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. The principal responsible for Pearson's success was John Howard. When interviewed by the Durham Morning Herald, Howard said the secret to their success was weekly collaboration "to agree on what they will teach, when and how." He continued, "They decide what works and what doesn't. Teachers are accountable to each other. Their classrooms are not islands."

    This commitment to providing an excellent education for young people in a collaborative environment where best practices are shared and commitments are held is what we hope to build in our re-imagined version of The W.G. Pearson Center. We hope that we will do Mr. Howard's legacy justice as we build on the strong foundation laid before us. 

    Join us as we celebrate the history and imagine the future as a community at the Re-Opening event on October 20th at 1pm.  

    All the best, 

    Alexandra Zagbayou

    September 1986
    John Howard helps Heather Witherspoon, a school patrol captain raise the "Excellence in Education" flag at W.G. Pearson Elementary School. 
    W.G. Pearson Elementary School
    Mural discovered during the renovation of The W.G. Pearson Center cafeteria. 
  • W.G. Pearson: Oh, the places we will go!

    After three years of dreaming about making W.G. Pearson our home, today we finally moved into the building and started our journey! I eagerly greeted our team this morning at the front entrance singing Joy to the World to officially welcome them into the space and then lead them on a tour. Although I have given my fair share of hard hat tours this year, this one was different. There were no hard hats, just a sea of Student U blue shirts and our dedicated full-time team experiencing the renovated building together for the first time. Seeing our team's excitement about the building was a humbling moment for me. Listening to their individual and collective dreams for what we will be able to accomplish together in this space was energizing. Watching them help each other move boxes and set up furniture in their permanent offices felt like a dream come true. There is so much potential in this 55,000 sq. ft. building. We cannot wait to share it with you! Please mark your calendars for our grand opening on October 20, 2018! Until then, please enjoy some pictures and videos from the day!  

    All the best, 

    Alexandra Zagbayou


  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    by Alyzia McAlmon
    ECU Graduate 2017, Student U Communication Intern, A.J Fletcher Community Engagement Fellow

    I cannot tell you how many times I have changed my mind on what I wanted to be when I grow up. When I was six, I had dreams of being a doctor. At 12, I had hopes of one day becoming a Lawyer. At 18, I had ideas of becoming a Federal Agent with the FBI and even studied criminal justice and political science at East Carolina University to aid me in achieving my goal. As the wheels constantly turned in my head and I grew and matured, one thought remained consistent, I was destined to change the world in whatever profession I decided on.

    Student U has supported me in numerous ways to make sure I am career ready and successful. The summer trips and tours to different universities along the east coast was a start. The countless recommendation letters and check-ins in college kept me motivated. Every summer was a different experience.

    After graduating from East Carolina in May of 2017, I decided to take a gap year. At the time I had planned to use this gap year to figure out exactly what my next steps to success were. Student U supported my decision and kept me motivated in my planning process.

    I have had countless opportunities to connect with people from all backgrounds. The diverse groups of teachers and community members I have had the privilege of meeting, have all played a small role in steering me closer to an answer for  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    One connection in particular that I have formed through Student U is the one with Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs. I was recommended to apply for the A.J Fletcher Fellowship position by Ms. Z last October. The application process was long and tedious, but with the support of Ms. Z and my other colleagues at Student U, I was offered the position to become the A.J Fletcher Community engagement Fellow with Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs in February.

    No one’s path to career readiness is the same; everyone’s journey will be unique; but what we do have in common is that we are members of the Student U family and we have one another for support.

    Student U has helped me gain a sense of appreciation for home, for Durham. Service field trips and volunteer efforts showed me how important it is to stay involved in my community. My experience in the community with Student U and the knowledge I will gain from my fellowship at Duke, I am more motivated than ever to make a difference here in Durham.

    Within the next five years, I aspire to work alongside influential members of our community, beyond my year-long position as a fellow, to find solutions to the affordable housing issues that have come with the growth and success of Durham. I wish to extend the same support that was given to me by Student U to current and future students in the program; And ultimately, I want to attend graduate school and pursue a degree in public policy.  

  • Mr. Malcolm Jones - Finding Your Passion

    College Graduation Series

    Interview by Alyzia McAlmon

    Mr. Malcolm Jones has shared his brilliance both on campus at North Carolina A&T University, as well as, in the Greensboro community. Jones has earned his BS  in sports science and fitness management, with dreams to help people heal through physical therapy. During his journey through undergrad, Jones overcame many obstacles that have ultimately made him stronger.

    What school are you graduating from? What will you be earning a degree in?

    I have  graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University. I earned a Bachelors of Science degree in sports science, fitness management and pre physical therapy.

    What extracurricular activities did you participate in?

    I volunteer at Gateway Center Educational School where I found a passion working with children with 
    special needs in the area of physical therapy. I also continue to develop my artistic skills by participating in Arts Exhibition. I also mentored incoming freshman at North Carolina A&T.

    What are your goals and aspirations after graduation? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

    I plan to attend graduate school to obtain my doctoral physical therapy degree. I am also planning to continue interning at Gateway Center Educational School, working with special needs children.  

    How has Student U had an impact on helping you set and achieve goals throughout your time in college?

    Student U was a constant support system during my years at A&T. They helped me plan my future, stay focused and on track for a successful academic career.

    How have you made an impact on your community? (Student U, Durham, School Campus)

    I feel that I have made a tremendous impact on the kids at Gateway. It’s refreshing to see young kids looking up to me as positive role model, encouraging me to be a great example at all times.

    Which of Student U’s core values has been most meaningful in your journey to graduating?

    I was able to share my brilliance while working at Gateway Center by shadowing the physical therapist, engaging in regular classroom activities and beautifying the school with my art.

    If you could give a student in the Class of 2022 one piece of advice as they prepare to attend college in the fall, what would it be?

    Take some time to figure out what you want to major in and understand your passion.