The gift of miles brings HBCU students home for the holidays – and opens doors to careers

Students at UNCF’s HBCU Innovation Summit visit the Visa offices in Silicon Valley in November 2019. (Photo by Don Feria, courtesy of UNCF)

When Miracle Carter boarded her Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle for Christmas break, she was looking forward to more than the holiday and her first trip home since starting college. She was also excited to plan her mom’s wedding.

Carter’s Alaska Airlines ticket was a surprise from UNCF (United Negro College Fund), which strives to increase the number of African American college graduates and is one of 10 nonprofits that benefit from Alaska’s LIFT Miles program. UNCF doesn’t want travel expenses to hold young people back from pursuing their dreams and uses miles donated by Mileage Plan members to fly students in need, who attend historically black colleges and universities far from home, back to their families for the holidays. 

Miracle Carter

“We’re a little tight on money right now and we have to really plan around things,” says Carter, who is a freshman at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her mother will be married right after the new year, before Carter returns to college. “When UNCF sent me that email about the airline ticket, I was really happy I was going to be able to be there.”

The UNCF Seattle office tracks the students who participate in its college-preparatory programs during high school and selects a group each year to receive airline tickets to return home for the holidays, says Jaliya Washington, UNCF development associate. “It’s a need-based gift, so we look at our roster and the students who can really benefit,” she says. In addition, UNCF uses donated miles to send high school students to tour college campuses they hope to attend and may not be able to visit otherwise.

Carter, who is studying biology and hopes to become a medical examiner, says it was important to her to attend an HBCU, even though it’s 3,000 miles from home. “[Johnson C. Smith is] very tight-knit and a lot of teachers get to know you personally,” she says.

UNCF also uses donated Alaska LIFT Miles to fly students to career-development events like the annual HBCU Innovation Summit, which brings dozens of students from HBCUs to Silicon Valley to network with tech companies each fall. Since 2013, more than 400 students have attended the summits. Alaska Airlines was a sponsor of this year’s event, which introduced the students to engineers, recruiters and career paths at tech companies like Google, Salesforce and Adobe. 

Marbella Daniel at the Walmart Labs in San Bruno, California, during the HBCU Innovation Summit. (Photo by Don Feria, courtesy of UNCF)

“Our top focus is to increase the number of African American students who are entering college, staying in college and graduating college to then go on to meaningful and successful careers,” says Dr. Michael L. Lomax, UNCF president and CEO. “One of the big barriers for our students taking advantage of the opportunities we offer is that they may not have the means to travel. UNCF’s unique partnership with Alaska Airlines helps to remove that barrier for HBCU students who need it most and help brighten the holidays for so many.”


Marbella Daniel, a sophomore computer science major at Howard University, was one of several students who utilized UNCF’s LIFT Miles to fly to the five-day summit. “Right off the plane, we went straight to Google for a networking event,” says Daniel, who was impressed with the inviting, open designs at the tech companies she toured. “We talked to a lot of different black employees who were so inspiring. They were demystifying the stereotype that African Americans aren’t as prevalent in tech.”

Daniel is the third generation of her family to attend Howard, and she was excited to meet many HBCU graduates working in a range of careers at tech companies. “They said their HBCUs really prepared them to go into the tech world because they had gained so much confidence about who they were and the kinds of things that they could accomplish,” she says.

The summit culminates each year with a career fair, and Daniel left with an invitation to a 2020 externship at Quicken Loans in Detroit – as well as a new perspective on the career opportunities ahead of her. “Having those five days before we got back into the nitty-gritty part of school helped me keep my head up because I can see further into the future,” says Daniel, who aspires to be a software engineer before pursuing a career in product management. “This is all for a bigger purpose, and I can see where I can be in five years and 10 years. I’m going somewhere.”

Since 2017, Alaska Mileage Plan members have donated more than 7.5 million LIFT Miles to UNCF. Learn more about LIFT Miles and log in to your Mileage Plan account to donate.