Early Tuesday, as education leaders shook hands on a deal to bring a public four-year college to New Orleans’ west bank for the first time in history, Garland Green stood off to the side watching.
Half a century ago, when Green was a first-year student at Southern University of New Orleans, he would wake up before sunrise, get dressed and be out on the streets by 6:30 a.m. to hitchhike from his west bank home to the SUNO campus.
On Tuesday, the retired U.S. Department of Treasury employee was on hand as SUNO announced the creation of its west bank satellite campus opening this fall.
“I had to hitchhike,” Green said. “It was worth it to me because I knew what was at the end of the road, but looking at this today, it would have been nice to have this.”
Starting in August, SUNO faculty will move into the unified L.B. Landry and O. Perry Walker High School building. They will teach between 12 and 15 first-year courses in English, biology, math, social work, criminal justice and others. All at no extra cost to SUNO.
The August roll-out will include space for students to register for classes and apply for financial aid. SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said the plan is to expand incrementally until a student can get a “full-service, four-year degree,” all on the west bank campus.
The plan has been in the works for nearly a decade as leaders in both secondary and postsecondary education have lamented the void of options on the west bank.
The great barrier, apparently, is the Mississippi River.
Ukpolo, a west bank resident since 2006, said he sees the surprise on the faces of his colleagues and hears the shock in their voices when he tells them he lives on “that other side of the river.”
“I’m kind of surprised of the great divide,” he said.
He points out that about 30 percent of the nation’s population holds a four-year degree or higher, while only 15 percent of people on west bank can say the same thing.
Ukpolo estimates SUNO would have to eventually shepherd 290,000 students through its west bank campus to meet the national average.
National research says bachelor’s degree holders make as much as $1 million more in salaries and wages over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.
Ukpolo said the goal for every community should be to increase the number of residents with a bachelor’s degree.
“We’re bridging that gap, so that people won’t have to go to the east bank to pursue a degree,” Ukpolo said. “Students who have children in day care don’t have to worry about it anymore because we’re right here now.”
The partnership between SUNO and the high school was solidified with the signing of a memorandum of understanding Tuesday. But the idea has been discussed since 2005. Most in attendance at a morning news conference gave the credit to O. Perry Walker High School Principal Mary Laurie. She will hold the same position next year when her school merges with L.B. Landry High School.
“Today is the beginning of a dream realized,” Laurie said. “The river can be a great divide for our families. This is a great moment for all of those people whose dreams were placed on hold. Who better than Southern University of New Orleans, with its long history of providing four-year degree opportunities to citizens, single moms and struggling families to help people realize their dreams.”