Emily Reid, Campus Carrier reporter
Director of the Gate of Opportunity Scholarship Haley Smith began working at Berry right in the middle of the pandemic. Despite the challenges of going into a new work setting during COVID-19, she worked with the Gate of Opportunity Scholarship Program through her experience in working with college students.
Smith grew up in Rockmart, Ga. and graduated from Rockmart High School in 2006. She went on to get her degree in communication with a minor in religion at Shorter University, graduating in 2010.
Smith sang in church from the time she was eight years old, and age 15 she was hired as a worship leader for North Point Community Church with a congregation of 40,000 people. Her goal in life was to focus on music in the Christian music industry.
Smith taught herself how to play guitar and build a website because she could not pay someone to help her. She looked at instructional videos on YouTube and educated herself this way. Smith signed with a recording label when she was in college and began to tour full time. She wrote music for herself and other artists, and after some time, she began playing for other artists too.
Smith’s whole life was about Christian music until she began working with nonprofits playing music for them. She noticed a lack of strategy everywhere she went.
“They would spend all this money trying to be cool, but wouldn’t connect with their audience on a deeper level, so not as many people would show up at events,” Smith said. “So, I looked at that and said to myself, ‘I don’t want my music to ever be like that, and this is all simple to figure out. All you have to do is hang out with these people’.”
Smith went to events that were popular among students to see what drew them to these events. She reached out to her friends in nonprofit work and offered her assistance in helping them figure out how to attract larger audiences.
She was still making music, but was now consulting with nonprofits and advising them on how to grow, gain larger audiences and determine what goals they wanted their audiences to take away from these programs.
Smith’s life came to a screeching halt when her nephew became sick in 2015. She stopped touring, went home and decided to focus on her family while he was in the hospital.
“I decided to do something in the community in honor of my nephew,” Smith said. “I took the whole year and did a bunch of initiatives in his honor. It blew up. I went from asking people to come to something, to people asking me if I could influence 8,000 kids in polk county.”
Around this time, Smith was hired to come up with strategies for churches in rural communities in the U.S. and Canada. She created strategies depending on the community, and each community’s wealth, to figure out how they could better influence kids in their communities.
Polk County was used as a pilot. Smith identified 10 college age students who helped run the whole program for four years, and in return she helped them with their education. This was Smith’s favorite part of her job and where she learned the value of working with college students.
“They are probably the most powerful people on the planet who have no idea the power they actually hold,” Smith said. “They’re extremely influential, innovative, creative and they just have a lot more bandwidth than other people. If you want to see a community change, your best bet is to see a community of college students do it.”
Smith’s career path shifted. She wanted to help college students get to where they wanted to go and be who they did not know they could be. When coming to Berry, Smith saw an opportunity to change the way the Gate Scholarship Program was thought of in the past.
Historically, Gate has been seen as a work-based scholarship. In the past four months, Smith has tried to reevaluate this by reminding students the reason they were chosen for the scholarship was because they are deemed very investible.
“They are chosen because people look at them and think, you are so investable that one day you will be so successful that you will invest in someone later,” Smith said. “That’s who Gates are, we’ve asked a lot of them to get to that point.”
Smith is bringing the history behind the Gate program to light. The first part in understanding that story was by learning more about donor Audrey Morgan’s role and President Steve Briggs’ involvement with the start of the program.
Smith is also focusing on ways to increase the value of what the Gate Scholarship does with Gates. Her plan is to provide as many personal and professional opportunities as possible to students, mentorship programs, establish a deeper meaning of community, and to simply ask Gates what they want to get out of the program.
She is partnering with the Center for Personal and Professional Development, the Academic Success Center, BOLD and other departments to make use of the resources Berry has to offer, and provide programming for Gate Scholars.
Smith hopes to soak in all the good things about Berry in the next few years, and be able to highlight them for her Gate Scholars so they can lead the charge in understanding how valuable their education at Berry really is.
Starting a new position during the middle of a pandemic was challenging for Smith. However, she was thankful for Berry’s strong and supportive community during her transition to a new workplace.
“Everyone has been really good to me,” Smith said. “I can’t speak for every institution, but I can speak to how I was as a college student. Our students, specifically Gates, are just exceptional. This made the process great and a much sweeter experience than it could have been. I’m a big fan of Berry so far.”