From recipient to donor: alumnus aids meal plan scholarship’s continued impact

Alumnus and former recipient of the Let All the Big Dawgs Eat scholarship, Johnelle Simpson II, returns as a donor and advisor to ensure the program’s continued success. 

For many students, the dining halls at UGA are a place of community and comfort where students can go to visit each other, study, go on dates and of course, eat. But for some students — more than you’d think — the dining halls also represent a sense of security that remains out-of-reach. That’s where the Let All the Big Dawgs Eat Food Scholarship program comes in. Established in 2014, the LATBDE program set out to help address the food insecurity crisis among college students at UGA.  

National data puts the number of college students who are food insecure at about 1 in 10, whereas data from the UGA Office of Student Financial Aid puts UGA’s numbers at a much higher rate of 1 in every 5 students. Taking on this crisis facing its student population, UGA became the first university in the United States to systematically address college student hunger by providing a sustainable meal source.  

The LATBDE scholarship program has now expanded to include not only the scholarship fund, but an entire initiative within the UGA Division of Student Affairs that seeks to analyze the impact of the scholarship. The program includes the Food Scholarship Advisory Board, which collects data from recipients of the scholarship to determine how best to continue administering the program to its highest efficiency.  

The advisory board includes a former recipient of the LATBDE scholarship, Johnelle Simpson II (AB ’16, BBA ’16). Johnelle began his UGA career with first-year scholarships from his local Lions Club and the Future Business Leaders of America. He also benefitted from the HOPE Scholarship until, through his double majors, study abroad programs and summer classes, he exhausted the allotted number of credit hours that HOPE will cover before his senior year.  

As a member of the Residence Hall Association, the Arch Society, and eventually president of the Student Government Association, Johnelle certainly made the most of what UGA could offer him. He also served as a resident assistant for two years and was voted Homecoming King his senior year. 

Johnelle Simpson stands with UGA President Jere W. Morehead after being voted UGA Homecoming King in 2015.

Johnelle Simpson stands with UGA President Jere W. Morehead after being voted UGA Homecoming King in 2015.

As SGA president, Johnelle had a demanding schedule, one that did not allow for even a part-time job. Thus, Johnelle found himself at the peak of his success at UGA but struggling to pay tuition, rent and meals. When he went to SGA advisor Jan Barham (PHD ’04) for help, the LATBDE scholarship was the answer.  

“The scholarship really helped me thrive as a student and as the top student leader on campus,” Johnelle says. “There’s a lot of requirements as SGA president and it was integral for me to be able to walk across the street from the SGA office to Bolton and in between classes.”  

“There’s no way I could pay for that outside of the aid I was receiving,” he describes.

Today, Johnelle is back in Athens after law school and re-engaging with UGA as a member of the Food Scholarship Advisory Board. The position has allowed him to see the full scope of the program that changed his life 

“It was a full circle moment, to be on the other side of this program,” Johnelle says. “It’s been really enlightening to hear students’ stories and especially how struggling with food insecurity can impact their mental health, their academics and their overall well-being at the university.” 

Also on the advisory board is Robin Hoover (BSED ’83), whose initial donation began the program back in 2014. Johnelle hopes that working with Robin shows her how impactful her generosity has been on students like him across campus. It also provides an additional source of inspiration for Johnelle who, as an attorney based in Athens, finds himself in much different circumstances than when he was a beneficiary of the scholarship. 

“This scholarship has helped me tremendously and has allowed me to be in a place now where I can give back to the scholarship myself,” he says.  

From receiving this scholarship, to being on the advisory board for the resulting program and finally giving back to scholarship in his own way, Johnelle represents the cyclical nature of giving at its best.  

“Giving back is a really personal thing, so you have to figure out what you’re passionate about,” Johnelle says. “If you’re passionate about it, you’ll try your hardest to figure out a way to make sure it succeeds and impacts as many people as possible.” 

The Let All the Big Dawgs Eat scholarship has certainly expanded its impact on students since its inception in 2014. With the help of donors like Robin, previous recipients and now advisory board members like Johnelle, the program has reached over 470 recipients with a 93.3% graduation rate among them. In fact, those recipients indicated that this scholarship program was the primary reason they were able to complete their studies and graduate from UGA. 

Despite the exponential growth and widespread impact that the LATBDE program has had thus far, so many students at UGA are still left struggling with food insecurity. According to the Office of Student Affairs, the program has, to date, only met 10% of applicant needs. But as this crisis persists, so too do the remarkable efforts of donors and alumni like Robin and Johnelle.