Northeastern Illinois University double alumnus David D. Robertson is not just hoping for a better world, he’s creating it.
Robertson (B.A. ’16 University Without Walls (UWW); M.A. ’18 Community and Teacher Leaders), who is the founder of the nonprofit organization the Hope Is Foundation, is partnering with Northeastern Illinois University to break the economic barrier of receiving a college education and spread a message of hope. He’s doing this by creating two new scholarship initiatives and virtually returning to Northeastern on May 20 for an NEIU Alumni All Access event to discuss innovative ways to build community and various forms of philanthropy.
“The reason I started Hope Is is because I didn’t feel a sense of community and didn’t see people who looked like me or who were understanding of my needs,” Robertson said. “When I came to Northeastern, I realized the school wasn’t just about giving me a degree. It was a community. I was able to be involved in the Nontraditional Degree Program and utilize my skills.”
The Hope Is Foundation has a mission to expand local communities’ capacity to respond to health, educational and economic needs. Through his organization, Robertson aspires to inspire youth and adults across the country and combat hopelessness. This work earned him the 2020 NEIU GOLD Alumni Award. Now, Robertson is encouraging the next generation of scholars to achieve their goals through The Robertson Family Education Award and is looking to create an endowed scholarship, The Hope Is Foundation Courageous Scholars Scholarship.
“Both scholarships are a tool for student success, creating unique opportunities where students and alumni can engage and enrich their lives and the NEIU campus,” Robertson said. “Aside from the financial support, students take away a stronger sense of community, the power of communication and the courageous voice of vulnerability that fosters a sense of belonging to a network of support.”
These scholarships will provide support for Northeastern students from underrepresented groups, such as first-generation Black and Latinx students, and invest in their personal growth. Awards may be used to offset expenses of tuition, books, fees or personal expenses, and include mentorship opportunities for the recipients and alumni.
The Robertson Family Education Award is already making an impact in the life of its first recipient, who is currently enrolled at Northeastern.
Northeastern student Kimberly Nu-Tall is working on her second bachelor’s degree. With a degree in Biology, Nu-Tall hopes to become a dentist and said she plans to use the scholarship funds for books or a new electronic device to assist her in her education. However, she values the mentorship component of the scholarship just as much as the funds.
“Mentorship is very important because I don’t have anyone who looks like me trying to do what I’m doing,” Nu-Tall said. “No one in my family has become a doctor. So having a mentor has been really helpful.”
Nu-Tall’s mentor was Victoria Pucinni-Castro, a 2020 Northeastern graduate who earned a full scholarship to Yale University to pursue her Ph.D. in a combined Biological and Biomedical Sciences program with a concentration in Molecular Cell Biology, Genetics, and Development.
“Victoria encouraged me to keep going,” Nu-Tall said. “My hope is to go to Howard University College of Dentistry or Meharry Medical College because both are historically Black colleges. Victoria’s been a great help in assisting me prepare my curriculum vitae and resume and I can relate to her.”
This mentorship program highlights what Robertson is striving to accomplish.
“I believe any student retention efforts have to involve alumni,” Robertson said. “Alumni forget the power of their voice for students. Sometimes students don’t know the power of their voice until they talk to an alum. Mentorship is so important. ”
Robertson came to Northeastern at a point when he was struggling with the effects of personal stress and medical issues. In meeting with former Director of Nontraditional Degree Programs Kimberly Sanborn in Fall 2013, his perception of what he could accomplish began to change. Today, in addition to running a successful nonprofit, Robertson is working on completing his Master’s in Social Work in Clinical Social Work with a minor in Emerging Technology, Media and Society at Columbia University.
“I met with Dr. Sanborn just wanting to complete my bachelor’s degree,” Roberson said. “She not only guided me through my B.A. but also told me she was going to help me earn my master’s degree. To now be working on a second master’s and thinking about a Ph.D. is astonishing. Dr. Sanborn even wrote a recommendation letter for me to be accepted into Columbia University. Her support has been incredible.”
Sanborn said that working with Robertson to support his academic and professional goals was “a privilege and a pleasure.”
“David completed his UWW curriculum in the area of Global Health,” Sanborn said. “His activism around HIV awareness and other global health issues is inspirational. His dynamic personality and ready smile support his advocacy of hope through health and hope initiatives that he developed before, during and after his time in UWW. NDP is confident he will continue his excellent work and commitment to making the world a better place for all of us.”
The Hope Is Foundation is donating a portion of sales from their Hope Is Combo Kits, which include a 30-page journal, a Hope Is pen, “All Is Well” pin, a 2 ounce succulent and 3 ounce chalkboard plant holder with chalk, to help reach the $25,000 Hope Is Foundation Courageous Scholars Scholarship endowment goal. Once the endowment goal is reached, the Hope Is Foundation Courageous Scholars Scholarship will be Northeastern's first endowed scholarship established by a Black alumnus in NEIU Foundation history.
“I want these scholarships to connect to students and create a legacy of service by helping students who don’t see themselves in higher education, who don’t feel that sense of community, know there are mentors available to them and strategies to achieve their goals,” Robertson said.
His idea is certainly starting to take root.
“To any student who doesn’t see other people who look like them in spaces, remember you belong there,” Nu-Tall said. “There’s a place for you at the table. If there isn’t, create a space for yourself. For example, I was one of only a few Black students in the Student Center for Science Engagement program last summer and I want to serve in communities with limited access to health care. I don’t know a lot of Black dentists. I keep telling myself that any time I just show up, I’m opening a door for someone else who looks like me. Your voice matters. Your experiences are important. You matter. Period.”
If you missed the NEIU Alumni All Access event with Robertson on May 20, or would like to watch it again, the full presentation is available to view below.