Wilberforce U To Reinvent Itself For The 21st Century: Embracing Tech And Entrepreneurship In Historic HBCU Education

Vann Newkirk Sr. is the new president of Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Even before beginning the position, he was thinking of ways to build upon the history and legacy of the historically Black institution — moving it solidly into the 21st century to better serve and prepare students.

Wilberforce University is the first private HBCU in the nation, founded in 1856 to educate African Americans. It was one of the first HBCUs to have African American leadership as well: African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop Daniel Payne led the institution beginning in 1863. Today it has its largest enrollment in 10 years, with a 38% increase and just under 1000 students. Newkirk would like to have 2000 students within 5-7 years and he believes he and his team can make it happen. He is already increasing the faculty across academic areas to support this kind of growth.

The Wilberforce leadership believes the path to success is aligning technology and entrepreneurship with all of the institution’s degree programs, and delivering the education in a deeply caring environment. According to Newkirk, “We want to become the Black MIT — Wilberforce University + Institute of Technology. We are rebranding — adding tech to all liberal arts and social science courses.” For example, the institution is bringing the digital humanities and GIS mapping to history courses, ensuring that students are well-versed in current applications of these technologies.

Wilberforce was a stop on the Underground Railroad and is steeped in history. In the words of Newkirk, “The University has always been social justice-focused, and has emphasized changing the lives of African American students and Black communities.” According to Brandon Owens, Provost & Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University, “We plan to map the Underground Railroad in the area, using GIS mapping. And we’ll give virtual reality historical tours as well.” Owens knows that that Wilberforce must remain relevant in order to attract students.

According to Alexandra Shimalla of Ed Tech, Wilberforce is heading in the right direction. She notes: “HBCUs across the country haven’t stopped fighting to remain relevant to students. They’re expanding opportunities for learning by embracing virtual reality and other forms of emerging technology.”

In addition, to ensuring that students are learning new technologies, Wilberforce’s wants to prepare students for all the possibilities and challenges that they will face in life, and shared that students are taught to be resilient, operating with the motto of “No matter what life throws our way, we know we can triumph.” According to students Feaven Almedom-Jackson, Christian Locke, and Joni Bargaineer, Wilberforce is paving the way to their success and providing a nurturing and supportive community that challenges them to do their best. Almedom-Jackson, a sophomore business major and member of Jazzers, the University’s dance team, wants to own a business focused on beauty — including sugar scrubs and body butters. Locke, a sophomore communication major and former section leader of the Hounds of Sound Marching Band, wants to be an author and poet. She is focused on healthy positivity in her writing. Bargaineer, a sophomore business major, and head drum major for the Hounds of Sound seeks a career in business and has ideas about bringing entertainment to rural communities like Wilberforce. All very entrepreneurial in spirit, Almedom-Jackson, Locke, and Bargaineer are also STRATA Scholars — “change makers who aim to make significant contributions on campus, within the community, and in their future careers.” They each chose Wilberforce for college for different reasons, including the affordable tuition, the nationally recognized band, the nurturing environment, and family legacy.

Although there is challenge ahead for Wilberforce University — given that it is financially under resourced like many small HBCUs, Newkirk says one of his first priorities for the institution is “to engage community supporters who can assist in the university’s fundraising efforts, and solidify student retention and graduation rates.” Along with “premium academic programs” and a “supportive, yet challenging culture,” Newkirk believes these efforts will add value to the university’s distinction among nationally ranked liberal arts colleges, and change the lives of generations of African Americans.

The authors of a recent report by Goldman Sachs agree, stating, “The case for investing in HBCUs centers on their unique position to help reduce racial, education, and economic inequities experienced by Black Americans which will improve Black communities and by extension, the broader country,” Wilberforce University students are clear that their experiences at the historic institution are changing their lives and moving them toward their goals.

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