Beginning in the 2023-24 academic year, top N.C. Central University journalism students who contribute to the Campus Echo will be eligible for financial support from The Ernie Suggs Endowed Scholarship in Journalism.
NCCU alumnus Tommy McNeill and his wife, Gail, funded the scholarship in October with an initial $25,000 donation to the NCCU Foundation to honor his former classmate.
In 1985 — during his freshman year at NCCU — Ernie Suggs became the Campus Echo’s sports editor, stating that his then advisers put a lot of faith in him early on which pushed him.
He was also taught by then NCCU journalism professor and author, Kip Branch, who he said was a “father figure.”
Branch passed away on Oct. 22.
“He is the reason that I exist as a journalist and as a large part as a man because of what he taught me as a professor and as a mentor,” Suggs said.
By his junior and senior years, Suggs would become editor-in-chief and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1990.
“Working at the Campus Echo was a highlight of my college career,” he said.
“It fulfilled my destiny of writing for the school newspaper and learning from amazing professors and advisors.”
After graduating, he embarked on his professional journalism career starting out as an intern at Gannett Newspapers in White Plains, N.Y. before returning back to Durham to write for The Herald-Sun in 1992.
By 1997, he would relocate and join The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he now reports on race and culture.
In that same year, he would publish a 17 piece series — Fighting to Survive: Historically Black Colleges and Universities Face the 21st Century – that earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and multiple awards.
In 2013, he was given the Pioneer Black Journalist Award from the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.
He is also a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is currently on the Nieman Foundation’s board of trustees.
Suggs said that he didn’t know of the scholarship until a few weeks after the McNeill donation.
“Me and Tom went to school together and we are good friends. I have always admired him,” he said.
“I am still 100 percent shocked and amazed and honored that he would even consider establishing a scholarship under my name.”
Tommy McNeill says while he was attending NCCU he admired the work Suggs did at the Campus Echo and wants the scholarship to encourage more alumni to give back for future Eagles who are aspiring journalists.
“He epitomizes the vision and the mission of NCCU and serves as a role model for other alumni to follow,” McNeill said.
“Due to the fact he was a campus leader and journalism is his profession, it ran parallel with what I thought would be best for NCCU.”
McNeill graduated from NCCU in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. He is vice president of sales for Mid-South Medical LLC, a medical distribution company that makes life-saving medical products.
His wife owns two hair salons named Gail’s Hair Salon LLC and Pampering Women. She is a graduate of Durham Technical Community College.
“To me it’s a down payment of what I owe NCCU, particularly in the area of journalism,” he said.
“My experience at NCCU was life-changing due to the fact that I had an opportunity to meet the most fabulous and outstanding college classmates and learn the various skill sets when it comes to success.”
The McNeills previously established the Tommy and Gail McNeill Journalism Award, which gave an annual $100 award to a Campus Echo student. They have also donated to the university on multiple occasions in the past.
Calvin Hall, chair and associate professor of the mass communication department said he is grateful for the donation and hopes it encourages other alumni to give back.
“I think it is an amazing thing for our department and for the students in our journalism concentration, specifically in the Campus Echo,” Hall said.
“It shows the power of what the university’s alums both out in the world and as donors can do. It should be a model for anyone who is interested in being a friend of the department.”
Hall said the criteria for a student to receive the scholarship, which has no GPA minimum requirement, are that they contribute to the publication of the Campus Echo for at least five semesters and demonstrate strong service and leadership skills in journalism in the mass communication department.
NCCU’s Division of Institutional Advancement — which raises funds for the university through alumni, staff, students, parents and friends – values every contribution from alumni.
“NCCU is extremely grateful to Gail W. McNeill and Tommy T. McNeill for their extraordinary generosity and vision to create an endowed scholarship and support future generations of students in the department of mass communication,” said Gia Soublet, vice chancellor of the division.
Soublet said additional contributions to the scholarship can be made by affiliates of the university at NCCU’s Institutional Advancement webpage. She also appreciated the McNeills highlighting Suggs.
“We are thankful for the McNeills intentionality and thoughtfulness in honoring Ernie Suggs, a highly-respected and prominent journalist.”
Suggs acknowledged the challenges today’s college students face and that he knows it will help many.
“I know the hardships of going to college and what that means,” he said.
“It was a struggle for me at times, so anytime I could get scholarship money, that was appreciated. I know that this endowment that carries my name will help a lot of people.”
Suggs said he’ll soon be joining the McNeills by supporting NCCU as well.
He is currently raising funds to establish a scholarship honoring his mother, Thelma, who passed away in February.
He said he hopes to establish the scholarship by spring 2022.
“She was a single mother, she sent me to college with all the money she had and made sure I was able to go every semester,” he said.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college and hope by spring of 2022 we might have two scholarships in the Suggs’ name, which I am really honored and proud of.”