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HBCUs: A ‘Hand Up’ For Many Alums

By Rosaland Tyler

Associate Editor

New Journal and Guide

Yolanda Jones swept floors at Jackson State University and eventually earned her Ph.D. there.

Dr. Richard Koonce went from tending bar while he was a student at Norfolk State University, to scraping paint from windows in the summer, to occupying a seat on the school board in Sandusky, Ohio, his hometown.

Jones and Koonce are just two HBCU alums who know the real value of these institutions.

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This means for Jones, she experienced a drastic change in her social status and lifestyle because she enrolled in the Academic Second Chance program in 1999 at Jackson State University. There, she worked as a janitor, and soon earned her bachelor’s degree. Two years later, she earned her master’s degree at Jackson State. There, she also earned her doctoral degree in 2007, while working as director of the Comprehensive Counseling Center at Mississippi Valley State University located in Itta Bena, Miss., which is about a two-hour drive from Jackson. She still holds that post.

Rather than attributing her slow climb from janitor to Ph.D., to fate, luck, or chance, she said several factors launched her upward trajectory, including that grueling four-hour, round-trip drive.

“Sometimes I would just sit in my car and reflect on a lot of things,” Jones said. “But more than anything, I am grateful for having a crystal clear understanding of innovation and perseverance in this very competitive world.”

The problem is that while some continue to ask if Historically Black Colleges and Universities are still needed, others just key-in mean-spirited and insensitive comments online underneath some stories on troubled HBCUs.

For example, a reader wrote in the local daily newspaper under a story about Norfolk State’s accrediting challenges in December 2014. “A sinking ship. Won’t be long now.” Another reader wrote, “Who didn’t see this one coming?”

Another reader wrote, “I was offered money by Norfolk State to transfer from ODU to fill a white quota. I turned down the offer because the degree from Norfolk State would be worthless in the eyes of any future employer.”

It may sound plausible to some – except for the real-life stories. While Jones’ recently rose from janitor to Ph.D. because she attended an HBCU, Dr. Richard Koonce went from tending bar while he was a student at Norfolk State University to school board member.

“Norfolk State gave me a greater sense of purpose,” Koonce said.

Koonce worked as a bartender while he attended Norfolk State from 1989-1991.

“I worked at nights,” said Koonce who later earned his master’s at Michigan State in 1998, and his doctorate in 2006 at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “It worked out perfectly. Bartending allowed me to have money in my hands from tips and I didn’t have to wait on my check.”

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“In the summer, I would work for temp services doing odd jobs,” Koonce said. “One job was scraping paint off of windows at a closed-down recreation center in Norfolk. The time I spent at Norfolk State was powerful mainly because of the people. They were there for you.”

“I had attended other colleges before I went to NSU,” said Koonce who spent five years in the Air Force, attended other schools like Univ. of Colorado at Denver, Ball State University and finally enrolled at Norfolk State.”

Of his experience at Norfolk State, Koonce said, “It was the first time I was at a university with professors who helped me. They held me accountable. If I fell short of meeting an objective in class at other schools, it didn’t matter. But at Norfolk State, the professors held me accountable for doing a better job. NSU professors would say you are better than that.”

While he lost his first school board race in Sandusky in 2007; he won in 2009, and was seated in 2010.

“Norfolk State helped strengthen me,” said Koonce who left the Sandusky School Board in 2013 to get involved in coaching and other community events. “It’s not an accident that I am working as a college and career readiness adviser at Sandusky High where I graduated from in 1978.”

Does this mean HBCUs still launch upward mobility despite troubling headlines? The short answer is this. Jones drove four hours in Mississippi to attend class, finish school, and climbed the ladder. Meanwhile, the same story plays out miles away in Ohio.

Specifically, Koonce returned to his hometown, won a school board race, and bought four buildings there in 2009. Now he helps others climb the ladder to success. “All of the buildings serve the community,” he said.

“One building is called the Nehemiah Partners Centers,” Koonce said. “It is an after-school enrichment center that serves about 80 kids in the neighborhoods, serves hot meals five days a week, works with area churches, and is self-sufficient.”

He turned the second building over to Spirit and Truth Ministries. In that building the church operates a worship facility, a daycare center, playground, basketball court, and is launching an online radio station. The other two buildings were sold to an existing daycare center.

“I returned in 2003 to my hometown; so I have been here 12 years,” Koonce said. “The professors at Norfolk State gave me a sense of pride in my heritage and history.”

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Or this is how a 2012 Ford Foundation report put it. “HBCUs are still needed … HBCUs never set out to teach students who were less well prepared than white students who were afforded better opportunities.”

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