“If this nation is ever to reach its full potential, it must invest in young people,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson reminded those convening for a Research Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

WVU Parkersburg hosted The National Institute for Historically-Underserved Students Virtual Think Tank from Nov. 5 – Nov. 7, 2020. The event fostered conversation surrounding community colleges in West Virginia, racism and racial healing and the improvement of post-secondary student success nationwide. A diverse student panel consisting of students from HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and an Appalachian College brought student perspectives, while the Think Tank is composed of more than 50 delegates from colleges across the nation who are experts in the fields of uplifting underserved students in today’s society.

“Maybe you’ve heard the saying that you should never put off until tomorrow what you can accomplish today. Therefore, today is the time to start creating opportunities for our students. In colleges like our Appalachian institutions where students come from varied backgrounds, we have to strive to provide equity,” said Dr. Torie Jackson, vice president of Institutional Advancement. “We also know that students can use their critical thinking skills and their ideas for innovation to help us solve inequalities that exist. I have found time and time again that the greatest resources are often already within our institutions and they deserve a voice in helping us solve any issues we confront.”

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP

As always, the think tank sessions focus on the underserved student experience. 

“The greatest arrogance of higher education is that it so often does not include the student voice, the voice most central to its purpose, and we will not be guilty of perpetuating that grave oversight,” said Dr. Chris Gilmer, founder of the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students and president of WVU Parkersburg. 

This year, two sessions focused exclusively on the student voice: Students Speak – West Virginia Community Colleges and Student Conversation and Students Speak II – National Student Conversation about Racism and Racial Healing. The West Virginia Center for Civic Life co-sponsored each session. The first session explored  similarities and differences across West Virginia’s cultural landscape and the second session explored conversations about racism and racial healing and how it affects them, their culture, and their understanding of different cultures.

“We listened to each other, we accepted one another, and together we were able to use our voices to bring awareness to issues that many can’t even speak civilly about,” said Sarah Weeks, WVU Parkersburg student panelist. “Our cultures are so different coast to coast, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. Our differences make our conversations that much more powerful, and because we were able to speak about our different cultures we were also able to educate others on how we can embrace the difference to create change.”

After the students expressed their voices, the Regional Educational Lab Southeast at Florida State University hosted the Research Alliance on Improving Postsecondary Student Success in HBCUs. Co-sponsored by the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students, the delegates joined representatives from all HBCUs in Mississippi about the HBCU system. Among those representatives was Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.

Regional Educational Lab Southeast at Florida State University hosted the Research Alliance on Improving Postsecondary Student Success in HBCUs

Panel moderator and WVU Parkersburg Vice President for Enrollment Management Dr. Steven Smith describes Johnson as “ a leader of men and women and children” through his work with the NAACP and other organizations throughout his life. Johnson represents one profile of an underserved student. 

“I grew up in Detroit and it’s so important for institutions to serve students who were born in certain zip codes outside of their control – outside of their ability to choose the level of quality of education they were received K through 12,  to choose the environment that they are growing up in or to choose any of life’s indicators. And, because of institutions like Tougaloo, my alma mater, or Jackson State or many other campuses across the country that are built to serve students with a profile as I had – whether urban communities or rural communities where their families that are broken up or families that are put together of circumstances that result of economic conditions; there needs to be a pathway for students with my profile,” Johnson said. “Now with that said, I cannot think of a better avenue for someone like me than HBCUs. Also, understand that there are many other institutions that serve underserved children, both in West Virginia and Kentucky, and across this station. If this nation is ever to reach its full potential, it must invest in young people.”

Johnson remarked that the greatest migration on the planet was Black people moving from the South to the North, but the second-largest migration was working poor whites who chose to migrate from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky to pursue a better quality of life. They were neglected in terms of educational opportunities and often exploited for cheap labor and never invested in by their communities.

Students sharing their perspective during a session focused on the student voice

“It is important for us to begin to talk across communities and to continue to talk across campus. It is important for us to identify and leverage best practices so that the many, many students who have the potential to do well can have the benefit of their talents added to society to make their communities and this nation a stronger nation. Thank you for your efforts to assure young people who are like me, that we have an opportunity,” Johnson said. 

Looking to the future, the delegates are working to create an entire toolkit of resources that universities can utilize to help students. 

“For future collegiates, these efforts signify hope and acceptance. Yes, we know not all students come from the same backgrounds, but we do believe that all students deserve rich opportunities,” Jackson said.