When Mary K. Gardner was a high school senior in 1960s Virginia, many African-American women who attended college went to local schools.
"I wanted a different kind of experience. ... I had this clear sense and the sound reason to go South," said Gardner, who graduated from Atlanta's Spelman College in 1967.
The liberal arts institution was founded in the 1880s and is known as a school for African-American women. "It offered me the kind of well-rounded liberal arts education that I was seeking at the time," she said.
Gardner wanted to share her positive experience with other women. In 1975, she helped to found a Columbia chapter of Spelman's alumnae. Today, the group actively recruits and provides scholarships for local high school seniors.
The group's main fund-raiser, "An Evening of Jazz with Spelman College," a concert to benefit its scholarship fund, is scheduled for March 16. Performers will include the Spelman College Jazz Ensemble and the Juanita Williams Trio.
Ora Sterling-King, former president of Spelman's national alumnae group and co-founder of the Columbia chapter, said: "We have been raising money since we started the organization. Last year, we raised more money than we had raised in the history of the organization," about $14,000, most of which went to scholarships.
"We get a sense of accomplishment, a sense of enjoyment as we help other young ladies who need financial assistance to achieve a degree," said Sterling-King, professor emeritus at Coppin State College in Baltimore.
Gardner, fund-raising chairwoman for the Columbia chapter, said the Jazz Ensemble "is an organization wherein the artists are the students that actually attend Spelman College. ... We try to encourage support of our efforts by presenting some of our finest."
Gardner, a retired research microbiologist, said 500 people attended the event last year.
"We've developed a relationship with them that has extended over a period of about seven years," said Joe Jennings, who directs the Jazz Ensemble and coordinates Spelman's Jazz Studies program.
Jennings founded the band nearly 20 years ago. The Columbia fund-raiser has become a regular stop on the band's annual tour, which includes seven cities.
The concert will be held at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, where Sterling-King's husband, Lonnie King, is chairman of the board of trustees. "Our church has a similar kind of role to help young people get higher education," he said. "Because education is the key, we believe, to success. ... We are very supportive of Spelman and what they're trying to do.
"We think it is commendable for the ladies of Spelman who want to help other young ladies get a quality education," King said.
Attending Spelman costs about $23,000 a year, with about 87 percent of students receiving financial aid. The Columbia alumnae try to award five scholarships a year in amounts of $500 to $1,500. They also provide smaller book scholarships.
The group is participating in a new national Spelman alumnae campaign to raise 10 percent more than the previous year's total over the next five years. "By the end of five years, we're hoping that we will have generated in excess of $61,000," Gardner said.
Jennings said Spelman alumnae remain involved in their alma mater because they realize "the value of the institution for black women and women in general, and I think appreciating what this institution has done for them and seeing what they can do for these young ladies who are here now."
Gardner agreed. "As alumnae, we felt that the college has a lot to offer African-American women. We know what Spelman College has enabled us to do as professional women, the careers that we have taken and our lives in general," she said.
"It was wonderfully supportive," said Gretchen Cook-Anderson, who received a scholarship in 1986 and is a senior public affairs officer at NASA. "When you're trying to piece together money to go to school, every little bit counts."
The active alumnae group is a means to "make it known and available that women who have gone to Spelman College have gone on to higher heights. They achieve excellence in their careers and in their lives," Gardner said. "I think Spelman College definitely makes leaders out of the women that attend."
By providing scholarships, she said, "we are trying to attract the best and the brightest to Spelman College."
Tickets cost $25 for "An Evening of Jazz with Spelman College" on March 16 at St. John Baptist Church, 8910 Old Annapolis Road, Columbia. Information: 301-419-8207.