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Op-ed: ‘Rise Up’ above the fray

I sit in my office at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, photos with students hanging on the walls, homemade cards colored by children and good wishes of every persuasion lining the book shelves, a copy of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider catching my eye from the corner of the desk in preparation for a course I am teaching next semester.

I wonder: how do you get from there to here, from where my journey began to where it has taken me? Surely, it is an undeserved gift paid forward by the sacrifices of generations.

My mother stares down from the portrait on the wall, the power of her piercing blue eyes still bringing tears to my eyes even though she has been gone from us for more than four years now. How she would have reveled in this moment, and how I wish all of you had known her. Many of you probably feel that you know her since hers is my favorite story, how she was born on the kitchen table of a shack to sharecropper parents in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field, how she gave up everything she might have wanted for herself, every comfort, every dream, so that my sister and I would escape multigenerational poverty and a cycle of domestic abuse, so that our world would be larger than hers, so that her son could, one generation out of the fields, become a university president.

In a time machine, with the details changed to accommodate other families and other places, and the continuum of individual and shared history, that is the story of the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students. Someone cared enough for us to lift us above the fray, above the prejudice of race or poverty, sex or sexual orientation, geography or the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. Someone believed we could. Someone dreamed a dream. Someone dared to dare. Someone noticed us and our gifts at just the moment we most needed to be noticed, and that’s all it took.

Here we are — doctors and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, mothers raising kind sons, fathers raising confident daughters; welders and plumbers and electricians keeping the infrastructure of our communities running; pastors and social workers and teachers building and changing belief systems, and lawyers, judges and advocates changing the rules of engagement.

We are paying it forward. We are trying to do what my Mamaw Sarah taught us children so long ago on the road to Damascus, Mississippi, where we played in red clay mud puddles before we learned fully how hard and how wonderful life would be, that much would be required of those to whom much was given, and that we were being given so much more than fried chicken legs and clean clothes to wear. We were being given a system of personal values. We were being given love. We were being given a chance.

November 7-9, 2019, at WVU Parkersburg we will host the third convening of the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students. Our theme this year: “Rise Up.” College and university leaders, civil rights icons, nonprofit managers, educators, and entrepreneurs will gather with our students and our community, simply put, to advance the cause of equity in higher education. Tony and Emmy Winner Lillias White, a Broadway legend, will present a free concert at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 8, at the historic Smoot Theatre and a public lecture at 11 a.m. Saturday, November 9, also at the Smoot. Many other events are planned which will be free and open to the public.

Please watch our website at wvup.edu or contact David Creel at david.creel@wvup.edu for more information.

Also in my office there is a framed poem written by former student Genesis Villa. In it she writes: “I’m brown like dirt, but I’m proud to be a girl that worked in the fields. I am a beautiful butterfly.”

Yes, Genesis, you are beautiful, and so are the millions like you who deserve a chance to fulfill your dreams. Won’t you join us as we “Rise Up” for her and for all of our children, as we support their butterfly wings growing strong enough to propel them on their journeys?

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Chris Gilmer, Ph.D., is President of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and Founder of the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students.

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