Claflin University issued a challenge Monday to 14 elementary school students who participated in the 2024 Orangeburg County School District MLK Oratory Competition earlier this year.

The challenge to the students: maintain a 3.0 grade point average throughout high school and receive a $20,000 scholarship to the university.

“It is important that we invest in the future of Orangeburg residents,” Claflin President Dr. Dwaun Warmack said. “These students are our future and investing in them early will let them know that college is possible, that college is attainable and that college is affordable.”

“It is imperative that the number one ranked HBCU in the state of South Carolina, top ten in the country, invest in our future here in our home’s backyard,” Warmack said.

Warmack ceremoniously presented scholarship certificates to the students who participated in the MLK Oratory Competition held earlier this year. The theme of the contest was “Reconstructing the Future: The Hard Reset.”

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The competition saw students presenting their interpretations of Dr. King’s enduring question, “What is your life’s blueprint?”

Imani Jean, a fourth-grader at Edisto Elementary, was crowned the first-place winner, receiving a $500 cash prize. Neshel Mantle of Elloree Elementary won second place with a $300 prize, and Zionna Carmon of Dover Elementary took home the third-place prize of $150.

Warmack thanked the school district for its partnership and sharing the vision that “every child in this region has a quality education.”

Warmack also praised the students’ performance at the oratory contest, where he served as a judge.

“You all were amazing,” Warmack said.

Warmack said he was not planning to provide the scholarships but was moved to do so.

“When the Holy Spirit moves and you are sitting there and seeing that much talent, it was imperative,” Warmack said. He joked that after he said it, “I said, ‘God where I am going to get the money from?’ We have quite a few years to figure it out.”

Warmack said the scholarships will be provided at $5,000 a year for four years. Each student received a certification and a letter affirming the promised scholarship commitment.

OCSD Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster praised Claflin’s leadership and support over the years for the school district.

“They understand the significance of partnerships, but also educating our children from birth through college,” Foster said. “It takes a village. I hope to pass every single one of these students off to you.”

Foster thanked the students for being courageous.

“Speaking is a skill that will take you far in life,” Foster said.

Parents were on hand for the ceremony, which also featured a luncheon hosted at Claflin University’s new Student Center.

“I am excited,” Imani Jean said about the opportunity to receive the scholarship. She plans to go to Claflin University and major in mass communications.

“I am thankful to God that I have this opportunity,” she said.

Her dad, Heyward, said the opportunity for his daughter shows, “the intentional investment that Claflin University is willing to make into the future of our students.”

“They are not waiting until they get into middle school or high school,” Heyward said. “They are seeing the value in them now as elementary school students. You can only go up from there.”

As a parent, that gives Heyward an even greater incentive to “motivate my daughter to continue to push for excellence academically and then holistically in the area of culture and talent and stability.”

“She wants to be here. This is her school,” Heyward said. “For her future school to say, ‘We want to invest in you now as a 10-year-old,’ that means a lot to me as a father,” Heyward said.

“I am very grateful for having the opportunity to be here and to earn money for a scholarship and I am very grateful to be able have more opportunities to help people in the future,” Lockett Elementary School’s Maryam Ali said upon receiving the scholarship certificate.

St. James-Gaillard Elementary school fourth-grader Kiah Gathers said about the scholarship opportunity, “I am excited, happy and blessed.”

Gathers recalled how nervous she was during the oratory competition.

“I had to shake it off before I said my speech,” Gathers said. “I took a deep breath before. I prayed and I just went on and everything refreshed my mind.”

When asked what advice she would give other students, she said, “put your mind to whatever you want to do.”

Vance Providence Elementary fourth-grader John Rock said, “This opportunity is very good for future me and I think this will be a better way of learning.”

He wants to study computer graphics and become the founder of an e-sports team when he grows up.

Dad Laval Rock Sr. had nothing but good things to say about the opportunity.

“I think Claflin is doing a good job investing back in the community, especially in Orangeburg County where they are located” Laval said. “This is a great opportunity. It should encourage other students who want to participate in the oratory competition.”

Contact the writer: or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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