There I was Wednesday standing in the energy-draining heat of midafternoon with about 300 Southern University students, faculty administrators, staff and supporters from all over the place. It was a rally on the steps of the State Capitol to let the state’s lawmakers know that deep budget cuts to higher education, and to Southern in particular, would have devastating consequences.
Wednesday was Southern’s annual day at the Capitol. Like other schools, SU would usually have informational booths in the rotunda. But this time, given the possibility of debilitating budget cuts, the administration decided to have a rally instead. The famous SU “Human Jukebox” marching band was there, and it was said the legislators could hear them inside their chambers. Maybe the band should have marched around the building seven times.
The whole idea of a rally made me nostalgic for my days in the late 1960s and early 1970s when there were protest rallies and marches in Baton Rouge. There were civil rights rallies, wrongful deaths by police (yes, even then) marches and some marches because we were hacked off about a lot of other stuff. At Southern, there were rallies and marches to the Capitol to complain about poor state funding and even to build support for an overpass onto the campus so the school would not be trapped because a train blocked the two main roads onto the campus.
Wednesday’s rally was a little different. In my day, folks generally marched and sang, or chanted. Or there was just general conversation about how upset we were.
On Wednesday, students listened to music plugged into their ears and took “selfies” with their cellphones. In my day, we were working a job or two to keep our “selfies” in school.
Nevertheless, I was proud of the young men and women standing there being counted. Their numbers and passion said a lot without saying a word. They were saying the steady chipping away at the financial undergirding of public education is a crying shame, and they aren’t happy about it.
They wanted to say that their universities meant something to them. They have made investments, both financial and human, into a school, based on the promise that they would get the educational necessities they need to make a life for themselves and their families.
Imposing more budget cuts could delay or stop them from fulfilling their hopes. Or it could send them packing to another state to finish college. That’s probably part of what they wanted lawmakers to know.
As I was mingling with the crowd, I came upon Michael Hollingsworth from Shreveport. He had a salt-and-pepper beard and looked like he was an alumnus from back in my days on “The Yard,” the nickname for Southern University in Baton Rouge. I was wrong. While he was about my age, he was virtually a brand-new college student in the nursing program at Southern’s campus in Shreveport.
He just wanted to be there to speak up for his school, where he feels at home.
Hollingsworth said he had taken some wrong turns in his life but was trying to get himself straight. “I decided to go back and get my GED in 2013.” He did all of the studying he could to get himself qualified to get into the nursing program. “They welcomed me,” he said, sounding proud that he could get the entrance scores.
His efforts rubbed off on his son, he said, who has since gotten his GED. And he said his studying has motivated his 12-year-old daughter so much that she has earned a spot at a middle magnet school program in Shreveport.
Hollingsworth feels he is in the right place. “Sometimes I talk to some of the students about my experiences, my life, and they listen,” he said, adding that his story is often the inspiration that some students need to keep going.
But if there is more financial damage to higher education, we may start losing these remarkable comeback stories like Hollingsworth’s. We shouldn’t make it tougher for the Michael Hollingsworths of Louisiana to complete their education. We need to make more — and more affordable — classes available to them.
As state Rep. Ted James said at the rally: “It’s not about the tough decisions; it’s about the right decisions.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.