In college, Raki McGregor made a stumble that nearly cost him his future. It’s happened to countless young people who made some bad calls, got overwhelmed, dropped out and couldn’t pull off a return to school and a shot at a better life.
It took McGregor years to fight his way back. And he did not do it alone. Professionals and professors who spied his potential “wrapped their arms around me” with advice, guidance and support that made all the difference.
Today he’s an executive at Novant Health in charge promoting technological innovation in patient care and business operations. But he’s also taking time to pay it forward by becoming involved in a Novant Health-funded program to develop strategies to help keep struggling college students in their classes.
“I needed somebody to believe in me,” said McGregor, senior vice president of digital equity and community growth within the digital products and services division. “I want these students to understand no matter where they started, it doesn’t matter. Every single one of us is coming into or out of a crisis. What matters is who you have around you.”
McGregor played a key role in helping launch a pioneering initiative with UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University focused on decreasing the dropout rate among Black and other minority students dealing with challenges. In a unique twist, the students, rather than university administrators, are developing possible strategies with guidance from university and Novant Health mentors.
In the fall of 2021, students from both universities enrolled in a two-semester Student Success Innovation Lab Fellowship featuring weekly lectures and training in leadership, research development, communication and other skills that will help them in the program and in future endeavors. The students in April finalized their recommendations, which focused on improvements in several career center programs at both universities. Officials at the colleges will now decide which ones to implement.
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Because each of the students is facing difficulties related to income, lack of familiarity with the college experience, transportation and other issues, McGregor arranged for Novant Health to provide a $50,000 grant, which includes stipends to make it easier for the students to remain in the program. Novant has agreed to financially support the fellowship program for a second year, beginning in fall 2022.
“What I want them to know is where they are starting from is better than where I started from and the possibilities will springboard them to greater heights,” said McGregor, who has coached several of the students in the program. “I want them to see that they are more than enough.”
Trouble, and a second chance
McGregor dropped out of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro after his sophomore year in 1991, failing to figure out how to juggle academics and leisure activities. His family could not afford to pay for a college education so he’d earned good grades in high school and won an academic scholarship. Then he lost it when he did not maintain those grades in college.
For nearly five years, he navigated a rollercoaster of experiences.
After leaving college, McGregor was hired as the manager of several fast food restaurants but later got in trouble with the law. Court officials assigned him to a first offender’s deferral program, which allowed for the dismissal of his case after completion of certain requirements.
Then he started two businesses, one installing computer cabling for mid-size companies and a car wash service for dealerships. “I thought I was doing fine,” he said, “but people around me thought there was more in me.”
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With financial backing from his mother-in-law, McGregor returned to A&T where several professors offered guidance and mentoring. With a pregnant wife, he worked full time as a computer operator at LabCorp in adjacent Burlington, where he would leave work, drive to class and then return to complete his shift.
After graduation in 1998 with a degree in business management, McGregor accepted an offer for additional training as programmer analyst, which led to positions with steadily increasing responsibility. Those opportunities included a move to Charlotte where he initially worked with a company providing database management computer systems for textile firms.
In 2016, he began working with Novant Health and was named to his current position a little over a year ago. In 2020 he earned an MBA from Wake Forest University.
At key points in school and his formative career years “There were a lot of people showing me love,” McGregor said. And he’s hoping students participating in the current program will feel the same support.
And the effort takes on added significance in Charlotte, which in 2014 ranked dead last in a national survey of cities for economic mobility.
“I want (students) to have a sense of value, a sense that they are supposed to be at the table,” McGregor said. “The only thing that separates these students from others is access.
“I want them to own paying it forward and planting the seed for those coming behind them.”
‘This is an amazing program’
Lauren Hines’ father wasn’t around much when she was growing up, and her mother died when she was 15. She and a brother moved in with their grandmother, who died a year later. Then, she lived with other family members.
She arrived at Johnson C. Smith University four years ago from Newark, buoyed by a federal program that provides academic resources and other services for low-income and first-generation college students. But she almost missed another federal program offered at the university that she says has helped her remain in school.
Student Support Services provides assistance with seeking financial aid, tutoring, career guidance and cultural enrichment activities.
“If it had not been for my friend explaining what it was, I don’t think I would have had any idea how to find these resources,” said Hines. During her freshman orientation, she added, she doesn’t remember a comprehensive explanation of where students can go for assistance.
This experience led Hines to apply for the Novant-funded Student Success Innovation Lab Fellowship, where she has helped come up with ideas to make it easier for students to access programs to increase their chances of remaining in college.
Hines and five other Johnson C. Smith University students and six from UNC Charlotte began their work in the fall 2021. Students presented their recommendations In April to university and Novant Health leaders.
Even before she learned about the fellowship, Hines, 22, was already thinking about the gaps in how information is communicated to students. She recently completed a senior research paper that looks at ways high schools can better inform low-income and potential first-generation college students about federal programs that can help them get into a university.
The social work major will graduate this month and plans to attend graduate school at UNC Charlotte. She hopes to eventually work in a school system helping high school students get ready for college.
“This is an amazing program,” Hines said of the fellowship. “I’m definitely learning a lot. I’m enhancing my research skills. It is an amazing way to look at issues students are facing on different campuses.”