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When Andrew Knight was 7 years old, he loved watching Big East basketball with his father. Pitt basketball players Ashton Gibbs, Tray Woodall and Cameron Wright inspired him — so much so that he made the decision to attend the University.
“I wanted to be just like them,” Knight (pictured above) said. “But then I got older, realized how hard playing Division I basketball would be, and also began to get more driven in my academics. Pittsburgh runs in my blood, simply put, so when I was 7, I made that choice to want to stay in the city and learn at one of the greatest universities in the country. Although I didn't know it was at the time, staying true to my roots and remembering who I am is very important to me.”
Knight made his dream come true in the fall 2018 semester after he graduated as valedictorian from Perry High School. Today, Knight is preparing to graduate from Pitt.
“My experience has been everything that I dreamed of it being, honestly,” Knight said.
Knight is among 10 students from the inaugural class of the Pittsburgh Public Scholars Program graduating this spring. (Two public scholars graduated last spring as well.)
The program awards a minimum of $2,000 to eligible valedictorians and salutatorians from Pittsburgh Public Schools. Additionally, Pell Grant-eligible students receive a commitment from the University for full financial support.
It is one of three K-12 programs in the Office of the Provost’s University Educational Outreach Center (EOC). The others are the Investing Now program — a Swanson School of Engineering college prep program focused on preparing students for science, technology, engineering and math courses — and the Pittsburgh Admissions Collaboration, which Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid created to assist students who may need additional academic support for college and help them apply for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship.
Daren Ellerbee, inaugural director of the EOC, said the center and each of its programs are designed to help build more equitable opportunities for students to enroll in college.
“We're focused on supporting underserved and underrepresented students in their journey to college,” Ellerbee said. “We have to lead with equity in mind, recognizing the importance of exposing marginalized youth to collegiate life and career pathways, while promoting and celebrating academic excellence.”
Knight, who will graduate with a double major in English literature and urban studies, said his childhood in the North Side of Pittsburgh greatly impacted him and his post-graduation goals.
He has his sights on staying in town and working to address the city’s various economic, educational and social issues.
“It's specifically because I come from Pittsburgh Public Schools, I come from urban neighborhoods, and I understand what it's like to come from a disadvantaged area and not really have all the resources that you need to succeed,” Knight said. “But I know that these issues exist. And me knowing that and growing up here and seeing things change over time or things get worse or things get better in certain areas, it just kind of pushes me to want more for the city. There are a lot of places that need help. But I hold the city true to my heart so I would love to try to help here as best as I can.”
Riley Wolynn, another one of the scholars, joined Pitt in the fall 2019 semester after graduating earlier that year as valedictorian from Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts. With her family and friends here in Pittsburgh, Wolynn said she feels a strong connection to the community.
Wolynn will earn her bachelor’s in health services this spring and plans to graduate with her master’s in public health in spring 2024. Additionally, she’s working on earning a certificate in health equity in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences.
After she graduates, she hopes to work in public health research or advocacy.
“I believe that combating misinformation is crucial for improving health outcomes for underserved populations and addressing health disparities, and there is a pressing need for this work not only in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania but also around the world,” said Wolynn, who is also a graduate student research coordinator.
While the next incoming class of city valedictorians and salutatorians will not be known until May 1, Ellerbee is already working on plans for additional outreach to these scholars and programming to help foster a sense of community for them.
One example is the Breakfast of Champions, a partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools, the EOC and Pitt’s Office of Admissions to celebrate the academic achievements of valedictorians and salutatorians from all Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey spoke at the event last year. During the inaugural breakfast, nearly 20 students committed to attending the University of Pittsburgh, Ellerbee said.
The Breakfast of Champions will return on June 12 at the University Club. The keynote for this year’s event is Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor.
Additionally, Ellerbee hopes to hire more staff to join the center. She said she’s excited to see the center and its students flourish.
“I can't wait to see what the possibilities are, and more importantly, the outcomes,” Ellerbee said. “This is work that takes years, but we're planting those seeds now, banking on that they'll flourish within a few years, and we'll start seeing an increased pathway to college.”
— Donovan Harrell, photography courtesy of Andrew Knight
Paving pathways to Pitt
The Pittsburgh Public Scholars program is one of Pitt’s several affordability initiatives designed to create pathways to the University and provide additional financial support for prospective Pitt students.
This includes the Pitt Success Pell Match Program, which has brought a 70% increase in Pell-eligible applicants and enrollees since the program was launched in 2019 and lowered students’ debt by 24% when compared to the previous year. The Panthers Forward Program, which gives qualifying students $5,000 in direct federal student loan relief, has provided more than $3.75 million in debt relief since it launched in 2019. Prospective and incoming students can also find additional financial support through the PittFund$Me database.