Giving students a fair chance to succeed


Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 1:49 p.m.
Many of my former colleagues and readers in Florida, some in Gainesville, regularly ask me to describe my work here at Stillman College.
The most common question goes something like this: "Since you taught for so many years at predominantly white schools, what is it like teaching at an Historically Black College or University?" Although I answer each person individually, I'm using today's column to explain by way of example and personal experiences my work at an HBCU.
The other day, a senior majoring in journalism asked me to write a recommendation for her to attend graduate school.
Although her writing is average and she's missed several classes, I wrote the recommendation for the same reason that I would recommend other Stillman students with similar problems: Although she attended inferior, majority-black public schools, she is highly intelligent and motivated.
In high school, instead of being taught to write, she and her 34 classmates were given what she refers to as "busy work" that kept them out of the "teacher's hair." In 12th grade, she and her classmates wrote only two essays. Their overworked, underpaid teacher took several weeks to return the barely graded papers.
In my newswriting and reporting class, she wrote copy that needed serious editing. But I know that she worked hard. She also accepted my edits with a good attitude and rewrote her copy. We published several of her articles in the student newspaper.
Her class attendance was spotty because she had a full-time night job. When tallying her final grade, I gave her credit for diligence, academic potential and sheer guts.
Hers is a prime example of why Stillman and other HBCUs remain necessary when standardized test scores and other forms of so-called meritocracy determine who gets into college and who does not.
Stillman accepts all students who have a high school diploma, letters of recommendation from their teachers and have taken the SAT or ACT.
Although some students perform poorly on the tests, the college still accepts them. Essentially, we look at academic potential and the reality of the student's entire life rather than exclusively at test scores, wealth and, of course, legacy.
Many of my colleagues and I are especially mindful of the grinding poverty, familial neglect and bad public schools that shape our students' lives.
Sure, during the first week of the semester, I hand out a syllabus outlining my rigid expectations. Often, though, I have to modify the course to ensure that most students get the most out of the experience.
In the lives of my students, I see my life. Although I grew up during Jim Crow, my schools were like those in today's Alabama Black Belt, the Mississippi Delta and rural Georgia, where many of our students come from.
Indeed, I recall my school years in Florida where our books were discards from white schools, where we did not have science equipment, where our basketball courts were made of clay, where our playgrounds were a maze of sandspurs. Our library, the front half of a Quonset hut, had about 2,000 old books.
I also recall that I did not make a high score on the ACT. Nevertheless, historically black Wiley College in Texas accepted me. I thrived intellectually at Wiley because my professors believed in my potential. They nurtured me, often with tough love.
During my freshman year, I discovered Joseph Conrad and read all of his stories. I moved on to Albert Camus, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin and others.
When I made the Dean's List the first time, I began to believe in myself. I began to believe that I could become a writer.
My best students are similar to me when I entered college in 1963. I was a young man with raw potential, intelligence, a lot of motivation and a burning drive to succeed. All I needed was an opportunity.
Here at Stillman, I'm doing what was done for me so many years ago.
Bill Maxwell is associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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