By Erica Wright
Alabama State University student Bryant Williams, a junior, on Monday said he’s learning a lot during his internship with Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED. And it’s been less than a week.
“I’m learning a lot about Coca-Cola that I never knew and taking away advice from all of the other HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) students and graduates,” said Williams, “I can say that it is of key importance to network and I’m proud of how I got here and how far I’ve come.”
Williams is one of eight HBCU students from around the state part of the 2019 class of Coca-Cola UNITED’s internship program, “Pay It Forward.”
The “Pay It Forward” program, in its fourth year, provides African-American youth with opportunities to celebrate achievements and further their success.
In April, the company reviewed applications for the program through participating HBCUs and selected 25 students. From the Alabama region, the eight chosen were: Williams and Jada Jamison-Belser, Alabama State University; Brianna Jones, Miles College; Gabrielle Williams and Pablo Vallejo, Stillman College; Simone Brown and Kendarius Hale-Youngblood, Talladega College and Zalkari Thornton, Tuskegee University.
The week-long internship gives students a chance to experience a range of roles available at Coca-Cola, including sales operations, productions, marketing, packaging, pricing, event planning, and philanthropy and community relations.
Pam Cook, Director of Multicultural Marketing and Community Affairs at Coca-Cola UNITED, said continuing the legacy of Paying It Forward is “the right thing to do.”
“HBCUs are so much more than halftimes and homecomings,” she said, “the program . . . brings students to our facilities this week and teaches them how to go to work, how to read different statements, how to network, all of the skills that will get you ready for the job market.”
Students began familiarizing themselves with the program during the day Monday and in the evening participated in a meet and greet at Top Golf in downtown with other HBCU graduates and listened to a panel discussion about the importance of “Paying It Forward.”
Bryant Williams said he looks forward to sharing his experiences in the program with others.
“Other students at our schools don’t know, but it’s our job to help each other out as peers so we can all be on the same track and that’s what I have learned today,” he said.
Gabrielle Williams, a junior at Stillman College, said she also learned a lot from her first day.
“Being here with great HBCU alumni, I’ve learned about empowerment, giving back,” she said. “Being a Stillmanite, we learn a lot about networking, but being here today has just reinforced that to me.”
One of the panelists, Eric Guster, of Guster Law Firm and an Alabama State graduate, said, ASU taught him the confidence to walk into a room and fear no one.
“I spent time in New York where I was doing work for CNN and MSNBC, I knew walking in that room I could handle it and a lot of that came from [the] confidence that I received at my HBCU. You are just as good as or greater than anyone else and that’s the type of confidence you must carry wherever you go. Confidence paired with preparation, you’ll be prepared wherever you go.”
Casi Ferguson, Area Development Director Birmingham, with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and Talladega College graduate, said it’s important to give back, given the history of the institutions.
“You have to understand historic, understand what the ‘H’ means and understand these schools were started with a lot less, having no resources that we have now, but they were started for a very good reason and that is the same reason today,” Ferguson said. “[Giving back] can be $2 or it can be $10 but we should be in a position where we understand that these are our schools and each of you are our students… because we continue to ‘pay it forward’ and build relationships… it is so important to give back. Don’t think you don’t have enough, don’t think there is not enough to give.”
Zillah Fluker, principal with Activate l Elevate, and Alabama State University graduate, said “the greatest thing I took away from my HBCU experience is the need to always remember who I am. That’s what they told me. The other thing they taught me was the idea of a standard of excellence, you may not have everything you need and you certainly won’t have everything you want, but not being excellent is not an option. We always maintained a standard of excellence no matter what we had.”
Panelists also included D’Aundria Foster, Hayah Beauty Stylist and Tuskegee University student; Sylvia Bowen, City of Birmingham Mayor’s Office and Tuskegee University graduate; James Gettys, Birmingham Times Sales Director and graduate of Stillman College; and Deanna “Dee” Reed, Program Coordinator with Woke Vote and a graduate of Miles College.
Also in attendance were Dr. Quinton Ross, president of Alabama State University and Dr. Billy Hawkins, president of Talladega College.
Cook said she is proud of her work and Coca-Cola’s partnership with HBCUs. “I get to be the champion of that for the schools. I know what it’s like to need a class and it isn’t being offered that semester and you’re so close to graduation, I know what it’s like to be away from home… all of those wonderful things that HBCUs provide, that sense of family, all of that is so priceless and it’s an excellent thing to do.”
In addition to the Birmingham and Montgomery markets, the company offers internships in Georgia and Louisiana.
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.