WASHINGTON — In 1926, nearly six decades after its founding as a private college in 1867, Howard University was awarded special status. That year, Congress authorized permanent federal funding for the university in a bid to address what it called “the Negro problem” — in effect, approving a type of reparations for slavery and decades of social injustice.
And Howard was special, a leader even then. It had a law school, a medical school, schools of pharmacy and education and music and agriculture. The presence of Freedman’s Hospital on campus meant future doctors could receive their clinical training on site, an opportunity Black students didn’t have at other schools, and a selling point for congressmen looking to increase the supply of physicians.
Today, Howard still produces more Black medical doctors than any school in the country. It also graduates more Black Ph.D. holders than any other school, many in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
While the university continues to lead on health care — President Wayne A.I. Frederick and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a partnership to expand Howard University Hospital to better serve the city’s underserved populations — its students and alumni are also leading in other fields.
Right now, however, during the pandemic shutdown, Howard’s academic advisors may be the ones who best personify leadership, quietly providing a guiding hand to thousands of students whose worlds have been upturned.
“It has been challenging, because in the past when students would come to you with their problems, you might be dealing with one student that has a particular problem,” said Bernadette Terry-Williams, an advisor in the School of Communications. “But now we’re dealing with the entire world experiencing similar problems.”
Though the pandemic has affected everyone similarly, each student’s situation is unique, and circumstances change rapidly. Advisors know they must respond quickly to student communications, and to really “listen” to emails so they can identify the questions that students aren’t asking. For example, a student inquiring about a class for the fall may not be focused on the class schedule at all; an attentive advisor will see that the student just needs someone to help make sense of his disrupted world.
“The questions they asked you yesterday are not relevant the next day. We have to respond expeditiously … and not with a long dialogue,” Terry-Williams said. “We have to relay hope to these students.” At the same time, she said, faculty and staff must practice self-care to maintain their own sense of hope. “You have to do things that are healing for yourself so that you can heal your students.”
To her credit, Gracie Lawson-Borders, dean of the School of Communications, is leading the way in ensuring her faculty and advisors take care of themselves and thus maintain empathy and compassion for students.
“We will get through this. We’re going to learn, and we’re going to grow.”Bernadette Terry-Williams
One of the things that helps Communications faculty and staff find their balance, has been the Friday “happy hour” that Lawson-Borders implemented — a once-a-week videoconference where talk of work is forbidden. Instead, colleagues might share a story from their youth that reminds them of something from the week. Staff close out their weeks with these Friday meetings and are encouraged to take the weekend to reset — and prepare for more uncertainty.
“There’s no book you can read, no plan for these unchartered scenarios,” Terry-Williams said. “Every student has a different path. We just have to work around it and keep learning how to adapt, adjust and keep moving.”
Perhaps the best way to do that is to look to the students themselves.
“Our students are wonderful,” Terry-Williams said. “How they’re able to look past the pain that they’re feeling. I still hear the excitement in (seniors) that are looking forward to graduating” and getting their lives started. She also said she is encouraged by the high school seniors who are just as excited about starting at Howard University in the fall — even though they may not be coming to campus right away or starting their college lives the way they’d planned.
“This generation that we’re raising up, they’re ready. We’re the ones that have to adjust. They give me strength,” Terry-Williams said. “As fearful as things are right now, our future does look bright. I hear it and I see it in our youth. So we cannot instill any type of fear in them. We will get through this. We’re going to learn, and we’re going to grow.”
The stories in this issue of Snapshot were written by Autumn A. Arnett, an independent journalist based in Austin, Texas. She has served as an education writer and editor at several national publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Education Dive, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Arnett, founder and former editor of Out of Bounds Magazine, also has had her work published in The Atlantic, the NABJ Journal, and other print and online media outlets.