Darren Gambrell knows firsthand how difficult it can be to earn a college degree if you lack the right support system. Born and raised in South Carolina, he was forced to help support two younger siblings and his mother starting at age 13. Although he wanted to attend college, he decided instead to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserve and completed his training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
“I was a first-generation college student and had absolutely no financial support whatsoever,” Gambrell says. “The only other option I knew was the military, because my father had served active duty in the Army and he fought in the Korean War.”
After leaving the service, Gambrell attended Georgia’s Paine College, but dropped out for financial reasons. He relocated to South Carolina, then Fort Myers and then, finally, Bradenton, where he decided to enroll at the University of South Florida. He graduated in 2006 with a degree in psychology and again in 2010 with a focus on criminology. “I saw one young man after another get into trouble,” he says. “I wanted to understand the criminal justice system so I can better assist and be a resource for them.”
He also began working at the school, and, last year, he was named the school’s interim director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“USF is a microcosm of the nation and world in which we live,” Gambrell says. “As our great nation has become and continues to become more diverse, so has USF. Therefore, it is extremely important that we develop the cultural competence needed to better understand individuals from different backgrounds and cultures. Although we are more similar than different, those differences are what many times become barriers, if not understood, respected, valued or appreciated.”
Gambrell says the university is working to increase enrollment among African Americans and to better serve Hispanic and Latino students. Since 2010, Gambrell has helped organize an annual career summit on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus for young students who are part of the Safe Children Coalition, a nonprofit that provides a number of services for local children. The summit primarily serves underprivileged Black and Latino students and the program has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to young people who often become first-generation college students.
He’s also helped plan and put on celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month and Juneteenth and is a member of the university’s Black Employee Steering Committee, which has made recommendations for how the school can better address systemic racism. He also leads “safe zone” training programs that educate USF students and staff on LGBTQ identities and how to be a supportive ally.
“I know what it is like to be in a difficult situation, between a rock and a hard place, and have no option,” he says, “so I cannot see someone in need and not offer help.”