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Students learn history, see possibilities on tour of historically black colleges

HBCU tour part of revamped Ottawa Hills

As Marlon Coe II strolled the grounds of Clark Atlanta University, he noticed something that impressed him: lots of people who looked like him.

The Ottawa Hills High School senior was so struck by that fact, and by Clark’s scholarships and program offerings in his area of career interest, medical research, that he has applied to attend the predominantly African-American university next fall.

Clark was one of nine historically black colleges and universities Marlon and 76 other Ottawa students visited over Spring Break. For him and others, it was an eye-opening experience of the opportunities available at schools many of them had never heard of. Seeing them and meeting their students gave Marlon and others a better sense of who they are and where they could go – not just in college but in life.

Fisk University was one of nine historically black colleges and universities toured by 77 students from Ottawa Hills High School

“To see so many people who look like you and can relate to you, you know you’re kind of going through the same thing,” said Marlon, who didn’t know about Clark before the trip. “Being around them and seeing that they can succeed makes it easier for me to believe that I can succeed.”

The tour of schools in Tennessee, Alabama and Florida was a key component of a plan to revive Ottawa with a revamped program and $17 million in renovations.  The school district-funded trip on two reduced-cost Dean Transportation buses was the first foray of annual HBCU tours and an ongoing partnership with those historic schools, said Principal Kaushik Sarkar.

“I hope it gives them an understanding of the importance of their GPAs now as well as those SAT scores,” said Sarkar, whose own horizons were broadened by HBCU tours as a teen. “I hope they saw the school culture and pride at those HBCUs, and that some of those pieces that we witnessed we are able to bring back and make those part of our school culture.”

Students from Ottawa’s Ladies in Training program on the steps of historic 16th
Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama

Lesson in HBCUs

Besides Clark, students visited schools including Fisk University and Florida A & M University, which has provided $50,000 scholarships to five Grand Rapids Public Schools students. Junior Martin Harris said he didn’t know FAMU existed before he went. He liked the college’s business offerings, which stoked his interest in becoming an entrepreneur to help other people. That expanded his menu of possible schools, including Alabama A & M.

“I didn’t know anything about HBCU until I went on the trip,” said Martin, whose extended family is from the South. “People say black colleges don’t succeed like Michigan, Michigan State or colleges like that. When I think about HBCU now, I would like to go there too.”

Students also visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls were killed in a 1963 bombing by Ku Klux Klan members. They met with a former principal who had known the girls as a boy, and who was one of the first students to integrate the University of Alabama. That put history in perspective for Marlon.

“Seeing him made me realize that stuff is really not that far away,” Marlon said. “It shows how far we came.”

Martin said hearing from someone who broke school segregation in Alabama inspired him.

“I was thinking, ‘That could be one of us,’” Martin said. “If he could do that … I could do that too.”

It motivated him to work harder on his SAT test preparation, which was part of the tour program. He put in more study hours than any other student.

Students relax at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, where they saw statues honoring the civil rights movement

Ready to Hit the Books

Students returned from the trip more fired up about their studies and doing well on their SAT, said math teacher Paul Nelson. On their first day back in class, he said, “They were telling me how important the SAT was. They were asking how to get their grades up.”

Their interest was more than passing, he added, saying he sees students “trying to prioritize the academics over the social stuff.”

Sarkar, the principal, hopes this and future HBCU tours motivate students to take high school and college more seriously, as they did for them.

“I hope students see education is valuable,” he said. “It is something we should seek to protect and seek to grow.”

Senior Marlon Coe II, left, and junior Martin Harris are interested in attending a historically black college or university after taking a tour of several

Martin and Marlon say they feel closer to their fellow students, with whom they enjoyed an Atlanta Hawks basketball game as well as college tours.

“This was the best trip I have ever been on,” Martin said firmly. “We made connections with some people we didn’t know. Now we can be together, we can help each other, knowing that after this trip everybody wants to succeed.”

Marlon says he now knows how much HBCU schools have to offer — and how much he himself has to offer.

“I (got) to see all this amazing stuff about us, black people,” he said. “It opened my mind to what I can be, and not compromise. Because people before me haven’t compromised.”


Why Historically Black Colleges are Enjoying a Renaissance

A List of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Students gather in front of the Eternal Flame at Florida A & M University, which has provided $50,000 scholarships to five GRPS students

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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