By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gerald Burgess says he learned first-hand that he could help shape his own future.
After failing to work hard enough at his studies at Jordan High School in Durham, Burgess found himself at Elizabeth City State University, where in his freshmen year he continued his pattern of taking it easy.
But after deciding he wanted to transfer to the bigger University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Burgess hit the books his sophomore year, an effort that earned him a spot on the Dean’s List.
Now a senior at UNCC, where he is pursuing double majors in international business and management, Burgess is working to help seventh-graders at James Martin Middle School succeed by taking responsibility for themselves.
“If you work hard and set goals, you can change the circumstances around you,” he says.
Burgess recently recounted the experience of his personal turnaround to a group of students at James Martin Middle School, where roughly 40 UNCC students are working two days a week each with 381 seventh-graders in 21 classrooms.
The program, known as Success for Teens, is one of nine offered by Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, an initiative at UNCC that prepares students for careers through service learning.
“It is helping them learn how to improve the world, make the world a better place, and also develop skills that can help them do projects” in the community, says Kevin Toomb, a clinical professor of business at the Belk College of Business at UNCC who serves as faculty advisor to SIFE.
Launched at UNCC in the 2003-04 school year, SIFE is an international organization that currently fields 1,500 teams in 40 countries, says Toomb, former marketing director for First Charter, now known as Fifth Third Bank.
Roughly 80 students are participating in SIFE this school year, and each is expected to spend about 30 hours per semester in the program.
In addition to participating in Success for Teens, a national program, SIFE students also are helping to design a community garden for the Charlotte Housing Authority; running a clothing drive for the Resale Store at the Cabarrus Victims Assistance Network, or CVAN, in Concord; providing environmentally-sustainable equipment for CVAN and for Foster’s Grille, thanks to a grant from Sam’s Club; raising money for microloans to entrepreneurs in 15 countries through KIVA, a nonprofit that focuses on international poverty; and promoting and supporting a food drive sponsored by Campbell’s Soup.
SIFE students in the Success for Teens program also secured a $2,000 grant from Lowe’s to build a fitness area at James Martin Middle School.
SIFE also offers students programs in financial literacy, career advice and career development through networking opportunities with business professionals.
The program, which operates with an annual budget of $16,000, has won eight straight regional competitions involving other SIFE programs.
Burgess, who is project manager this year for SIFE’s Success for Teens program, says he hopes kids at Martin Middle School can learn how to fend for themselves.
“I feel like if I had been more focused [as a teen] and had more people talking to me about working harder,” he says, “I could have achieved more.”