While growing up in the Delta region of Arkansas, one of the most racially segregated and economically depressed areas of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, my parents instilled in me and my 10 siblings the belief that we could be anything we wanted to be. Neither my mother nor my father completed high school, but they believed fiercely that education was the engine of opportunity. They did everything within their power to ensure that their children would succeed academically. In fact, eight of their children completed some form of post-secondary education. I took literally my parents’ admonition and have had a tremendous career as a faculty member and a senior-level administrator in the academy.
Forty-seven years ago last month, I enrolled at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Arkansas’ Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (Arkansas AM & N), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Arkansas AM & N was a poorly resourced, 1890 Land Grant institution founded for “the education of Negroes.”
I shall never forget my academic adviser, Mrs. Gladys McKindra Smith. On a July day, in an auditorium that was about 100 degrees, she said, “Mr. Nelms, your scores are sort of low, but if you follow this schedule, you’ll be alright.”
She handed me a plan that included remedial English and remedial math. Luckily for me, Mrs. Smith knew that my ACT score of four wasn’t a measure of my intellect, motivation, drive, work ethic or persistence. The faculty at Arkansas AM & N College told me what I could do, not what I couldn’t do. They refused to let me use segregation as an excuse for failing to fulfill my potential.
With that experience, every day during my tenure as chancellor of North Carolina Central University I lived two things:
• I did my very best to show students, the parents of these students, faculty and staff the respect and care that was shown to me during my tenure at AM & N College.
• I followed my Mama’s direction and did the best that I can. At the end of the day, I went home knowing that I had done the best that I could.
After four decades of executive leadership in the academy, which included three chancellorships, I retired as chancellor and CEO of North Carolina Central University on August 31, 2012. Student success has been the university’s highest priority throughout my tenure.
Consistent with my commitment to student success, I launched the Destination Graduation Initiative earlier this month. This project is designed to recognize student success on multiple levels prior to graduation. At the same time, students are expected to meet all academic requirements irrespective of the college or school in which they are enrolled. In fact, students have risen to the occasion by making unparalleled gains relative to student success.
My end goal through this new conversation is to change the narrative from why HBCUs matter and prospective students should consider them to what we need to do to make them more excellent, relevant and responsive. That conversation begins now.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
For more information on the Destination Graduation Initiative, click here.