PRAIRIE VIEW, TX – In late August, Prairie View A&M University resumed full-time education, and soon the campus was filled with familiar sounds and sights: freshmen laughed in the cafeteria, students walked through the spacious courtyard between classes.
There were also inevitable references to our current era, such as signs on light poles with various reminders, including “Today’s challenge: put on a mask.”
If colleges were among the most devastated educational institutions during the pandemic, they were also centers of hope and resilience. At Prairie View, a historically black university, that optimism was boosted by a $ 50 million donation from Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, who has discreetly donated billions of dollars to underfunded organizations since 2020.
Prairie View President, Ruth Simmons, is using the money for campus revitalization initiatives, including launching a writing program, opening a race and justice center, increasing university donations, and reserving $ 10 million for a grant program that some students are already benefiting from.
Joshua Gant, 21, recalls texting his mother a few months ago about his summer semester balance and his concerns about how he would be paid. He applied for a Panther Success Grant, created in 2020 to support students financially affected by the pandemic, but has yet to receive a response.
Mr. Gant was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. He came to Prairie View to study media and play trombone in an orchestra. In the midst of the pandemic, he juggled with his music, part-time work and virtual classes, dealing with the anxiety and depression that escalated during isolation.
When he finally got to the financial aid office, Mr. Gant was told that if he didn’t pay the balance of his tuition on time, he would be excluded from his studies. Then, just before the deadline, $ 2,000 was deposited into his account and his debt was reduced to $ 0.
“It says,“ The Panther Success Grant has been added to your account, ”said Mr. Gant. “I’m like, ‘Mom, you have nothing to worry about.’ And she’s like, “Thank you, God.”
Grant helped him quit his job and focus on graduation. He also hopes to stay at Prairie View and attend graduate school majoring in audio engineering or broadcasting.
“Our future is in fundraising”
Students, faculty and alumni of colleges and universities who have historically been black have a special pride in school.
This stems from the experience of attending schools where blacks are not a minority, where black culture is celebrated, and where the academic needs of black students are a priority, despite historically racist systems that have made it difficult to achieve these goals.
But how does it feel when decades of underfunding and lack of support prevent an institution from meeting all of its academic and operational requirements?
Prairie View is the first state-supported African American college in Texas and the state’s second oldest public university. Founded in 1876, it was an incubator for black talent. The school was built on a former plantation where enslaved people cultivated the land, and more than 140 years later, tens of thousands of students, mostly African Americans, were trained at the university.
About 9000 students attend Prairie View. They come from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds; many are college students and first-generation immigrants.
Prairie View, one of only two public HBCUs in the state, has historically received less money from state government and philanthropists than flagship state schools like Texas A&M University, which was founded the same year.
In April, The Houston Chronicle reported that Prairie View spends a larger percentage of its total budgets on providing scholarships and student support services, but graduates more heavily indebted students than those at Texas A&M.
“One of the hardest things we do as a government agency is trying to convince this government that we deserve support at the highest level, and therefore they don’t exist yet,” Dr. Simmons, President of Prairie View, said in an interview. “After 1876 and all those years that we worked, doing what we do and providing the black professional class for the state and doing so much for the state, it is still not enough to recognize the value of this institution.”
Dr. Simmons added that the government is working to address these inequalities and has made “generous” contributions, but she believes supporting school funding initiatives is key to a successful future.
“I am definitely convinced that our future is in fundraising,” she said. “It’s not about asking the state government.”
Following last year’s nationwide protests in response to the assassination of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the exposure of huge differences between minority and non-minority communities, philanthropists have mobilized to help black communities.
In 2015, a similar tragedy struck a university near her home when Sandra Bland, a 2009 Prairie View graduate, died in a jail cell in Waller County three days after she was arrested by a white Texas soldier during a traffic stop.
Her death sparked protests across the country as questions were raised about what happened in the prison. Prairie View City Council later voted to change the name of University Drive, the carriageway that leads to Prairie View A&M, where she was stopped and arrested, to Sandra Bland Parkway.
In November, Ms Scott made her first anonymous donation of $ 10 million to Prairie View to help during the pandemic. In December, she gave away the remaining $ 40 million and allowed the university to disclose her as a source.
The university used some of the money to establish the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice and the Toni Morrison Writing Program; renovated the student center of his library; and invested in faculty development and career services.
At the end of May, donations to the school totaled more than $ 142 million, up from $ 95 million the previous year. Tulane University in New Orleans, which has about 5,000 more students than Prairie View, has a total donation of about $ 1.4 billion.
Where will the $ 40 million go?
Amid excitement and optimism about recent improvements, there is also some caution about how the additional funds from Ms. Scott will be used. This concern can be highlighted by past experience.
Imani Taylor, 21, said she was thrilled with the recent donations but saw little change.
“I know a lot of students wanted more parking, better housing,” said Ms. Taylor, who studies management information systems.
She described the campus Wi-Fi as “terrible.” “Moreover, we are in the middle of nowhere, even our cellular communication does not always work,” she said. “So the time has come when Wi-Fi goes off in a residential building and there is nothing we can do. It will even go out in real educational buildings ”.
She was also a recipient of a new grant and said that it was nice to have the extra funds to support her along with her scholarships, but as someone who will graduate soon, she hopes that junior high school students will receive more benefits in the future.
“Even if I don’t manage to experience it myself, other generations will come here,” said Ms. Taylor. “And as I said, simply improving the quality of teaching on campus will dramatically change the lives of students and teachers.”
Prairie View is a small, mostly rural town in Waller County with limited cellular coverage, grocery stores and restaurants. Many students acknowledged that not all of these problems are school-related, but they would like more efforts to be made to address them.
Mr Gant said he sees differences on campus between Prairie View and other, predominantly white, institutions nearby with more funding and larger donations.
“Right now, we still don’t have working water in my major’s ward,” he said. “How should we wash our hands?”
Issues like this are not exclusive to Prairie View. Last month, Howard University students began protesting what they described as poor living conditions in the dorms, including mold growth and poor Wi-Fi connections.
Melanie Price, professor of political science and director of the new Center for Race and Justice at Prairie View, said that when it comes to HBCU, there is a tendency to believe that “we don’t take good care of this.”
“That’s not all,” said Dr. Price.
She said she attended public schools from kindergarten to graduate school, including Prairie View in the 1990s. The only school that hasn’t run out of funding is Ohio State University, which is dominated by whites, she said.
“Endowments allow you to do things that the government does not pay for,” said Dr. Price. “Endowments allow you to bring back high-profile professors and scholars to teach here because we can reduce the number of classes they can teach. Donations help us fund more students so they don’t drop out of school because they can’t find $ 600. ”
Having deep gifts is the key to “doing everything we dreamed of over time,” she said. She also described it as a safety net. “There are schools that if they had to pay all the tuition fees in Covid – I think Harvard, Princeton, University of Texas – they would still have enough money to make money,” she said. “We wouldn’t.”
Dr. Price said Prairie View takes those who were “undertrained” at an early age and turns “them into engineers.” For the most part, she said, students “don’t try to choose between Harvard and us.” We take kids who choose between nothing and us and say, “I know no one expected you to go to college. I know you weren’t well prepared in high school. “
Marquinn Booker, a 22-year-old from Houston and president of the Prairie View student community, spoke at the first virtual meeting of Toni Morrison’s writing program. The event was attended by the first permanent writer, the poet Nikki Giovanni.
When it comes to the future of the university, Mr. Booker said he would like the government and others to help the university more in building a stronger infrastructure. But no matter what happens, he is confident that Prairie View will continue to support its students.
“I am very supportive of Prairie View because Prairie View has given me something that I haven’t gotten anywhere else,” he said. “By graduating, you are supporting the struggle for your education.”