This week and last on Charleston’s West Side, students from Connecticut’s highly regarded Wesleyan University have been helping African-American teenage girls get into colleges — especially prestigious, out-of-state institutions.
The Wesleyan students haven’t just offered college search and admissions process advice, but are helping the teens analyze poems by Langston Hughes and others and study, read aloud and write about the work of Angela Davis, an African-American professor emeritus and author.
Dennis White, a current Wesleyan student, former West Side resident and Boone County native, said this year’s Appalachian Scholar Project free program has about six students who regularly attend. He said it ends Friday, but hopes to have 10 students next year.
He said he’s focused on recruiting West Side students but possibly can accept students from further away if they have their own transportation.
Instructor Gabe Hurlock, another Wesleyan student, said the program will check in with students monthly from the first summer they attend to their second summer.
Hurlock and White are combat veterans, while the third Wesleyan student, poetry instructor Ricardo Vega, wasn’t in the military. White dropped out of high school while Hurlock dropped out of college before they restarted their higher educations and eventually, with the help of other programs, got into Wesleyan.
On Monday afternoon, student Daya Harris’ conversation about not seeing any black workers in a Harlem fast food joint led India Frith — who, like Harris, is a 17-year-old rising senior at Capital High — to remark about public housing projects being torn up and people from other races moving in.
Hurlock, a black woman who already has an associate’s degree and is double-majoring in philosophy and the College of Letters (itself European literature, history and philosophy combined, from ancient to present), used the moment to introduce Frith to the word and concept of gentrification.
The conversation moved on to Harris discussing how more “privileged” students attend Charleston’s George Washington High, then Hurlock asking what would happen if the Capital and GW communities combined. Hurlock eventually had to halt the talk for a question and answer session with Coretta Gray, a graduate of Tuskegee and Vanderbilt universities who served in active duty with the U.S. Air Force.
Gray, who spoke to the class over the internet, advised students to, among other things, seek out mentors and go to work with people to help figure out what they do, or don’t, want to study. She also spoke about her own experiences.
“They would just walk past me, you know, no salute, no greeting, no nothing,” Gray said of some in the military, where she reached the rank of major. “And I found out when it started happening over and over again it was because they were not expecting me to be a black female officer, to have this rank over them.”
She told students how Tuskegee helped her to love being black and a woman, and said “it is powerful to be able to use your skills, it is powerful to be able to surprise people.”
On Tuesday morning, Hurlock led the teens in reading from Davis’ autobiography, which they were provided free alongside copies of Davis’ book “Women, Race, and Class.” Hurlock helped students pronounce words like “farcical” and “provincialism,” and amid them reading about Davis’ experience with racism, Hurlock asked them if they’d seen racism, and they gave examples from their schools.
While this year’s class consists only of African-American teenage girls, Hurlock said the initial intent was to recruit a broader group of students.
She said she started off this year’s session with Plato’s Meno, “and the girls just were not getting with it.”
“So I said, ‘OK, well what got me going when I first started studying philosophy, when I first started investigating critical philosophy of race and gender?’ ” Hurlock said, “and someone I’ve always looked up to from my childhood is Angela Davis.”
Hurlock said that after coming back to the U.S. from about seven years overseas with the military, she was seeing “America from the outside in, because you know I’m a citizen, even though I’m not always treated that way sometimes in my own country, and so I said, ‘What’s up with that?’ ”
Philosophy, she said, was her door to better understand.
“Then they lit up,” she said of the teens’ response to Davis. “I’m so glad that I switched over to it because her story, how she grew up, how she recognized herself in a world outside of herself, that was something that the girls could relate to.”
She said the students are doing college-level work, and “our job here is for it not to be a shock, for it not to be overwhelming.”
“My writing really is improving,” Frith said. “We’re reading a part of a book that we really like and we’re discussing about it and our discussion goes really deep into how as African-American females, how our struggles were, and how to get over our obstacles.”
After dropping out of college and high school, respectively, Hurlock and White both enlisted in the military and later enrolled in colleges and, through the Posse Veterans Program, got scholarships into Wesleyan, which is separate from West Virginia Wesleyan College.
White said he attended Austin Community College while serving in the Texas Army National Guard.
“Some of my professors were like ‘This is really good, you know you’ve got a really good voice, you have things to say, you should set your sights higher,’” White said. “So when my English professor told me that I started thinking, like, well I’ll just apply to Harvard and see what happens.”
He said he “just started Googling like ‘veterans in elite institutions,’ ” and he came across the Service to School program. He said it operates on like a “pay it forward model,” where veterans who get help going into college are expected to help other veterans get into colleges.
White said Service to School helped him apply to the Posse opportunity, and Service to School served as an inspiration for the Appalachian Scholar Project.