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How 2020 Almost Killed Greenville Tech’s New Black Students Initiative. Almost.

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

Back in January, South Carolina Public Radio spoke to Dr. Alecia Watt, the director of Greenville Technical College’s Educational Opportunity Program, about the school’s initiative to identify and retain African-American male students who were at risk of dropping out.

The original feature is here.

The program had just launched, with the same high hopes as any new year tends to bring; and it since has run into the two major events that 2020 has (so far) brought – COVID-19 and a widespread movement to undo systemic racism.

Just a few months after the launch of the African-American Male Scholars Initiative, or AAMSI, program at Greenville Tech, the events of 2020 almost derailed everything.

“We were making such great progress,” Watt said in a telephone conversation Friday. “[COVID] took the momentum right out of it. It’s disappointing.”

Greenville Tech does not have a lot of Black students, but even in its small pool of Black males – there are 100 in AAMSI – COVID became a serious issue in a hurry.

First, there was the disease itself.

“We had two COVID cases,” she said. “One had to be hospitalized for two weeks. It almost killed him. The other one bounced back like it was nothing.”

The existence of AAMSI saved the students from leaving school – especially the one who was hospitalized, she said. Watt and her staff were able to intervene and get the student an incomplete, rather than a fail, which allows him to make it up without a stain on his academic record.

Second, there were the effects of quarantine. Like every other school in the state, Greenville Tech went virtual in the last few weeks of its spring semester. And while that might have been little more than an adjustment or inconvenience for students at some colleges, it was more problematic to the men in AAMSI.

“A lot of them didn’t have laptops,” Watt said.

Many of Greenville Tech’s Black male students are from poor neighborhoods and households, she said, so when classes went virtual, the only way to keep these students in school was to buy them laptops. Watt said the department bought five from its budget, and those were hard to find because when stay-at-home orders hit, laptops – like paper towels, certain food items, and toilet paper – disappeared from the shelves.

Greenville Tech will resume on-campus classes for the fall semester, in addition to online courses.

'We were making such great progress. COVID took the momentum right out of it.' ~ Dr. Alecia Watt

Speaking of low supplies, the third thing 2020 did to a lot of Greenville Tech’s Black students was strand them with dwindling amounts of food and toilet paper. Watt said many Black men at the school are from the low Country and went home, “but several stayed in on-campus housing. They shared their food and toilet paper with other students, so they ran out too.”

One was living in his car until a program director got him inside.

Watt said a program coordinator went to the store at 6 a.m. to get supplies to replenish the students – and had to get the two packs of toilet paper directly from the truck, because the crowds that had lined up outside never even let the rolls get to the shelves.

She said the students’ generosity was “really cool, but really sad,” because they were just about out of supplies when she found out about their situation.

The fourth thing that happened was George Floyd. As protests and a movement towards better police accountability and an end to institutional inequality ramped up, Watt said she wanted to check in with the AAMSI students to see how they felt about it all.

Staff set up A Zoom meeting. Watt said the men were grateful for the chance to speak their minds, but the session gave her and her staff a lot of unexpected insight.

“We learned that a lot of them are unfamiliar with the political process,” she said. “We beat them over the head with ‘You’ve got to vote,’ but they were just like, ‘Why?’ We make assumptions that they all understand [why].”

Watt said many of the AAMSI students felt as if voting would not do them any good, so they’re disengaged from the electoral process. This revelation, she said, will help craft a new attention on civic engagement at the college.

“I can’t just find out information like that and not do anything with it,” she said.

Watt plans to implement lunch-n-learn events featuring local, regional, and state elected officials, plus other events deigned to give young Black men “a high-level overview” of the roles, procedures, processes, and benefits of being part of an election.

Across the state, Clinton College President Lester McCorn also recently spoke to the need to engage young African-Americans in the election process. At a rally in Rock Hill Friday, aimed at changing the name of the city’s Confederate Park, McCorn said Clinton College – an HBCU – has also rediscovered the need to convey the importance of the democratic process to students.

“We’re talking now to our students about the importance of leadership,” he said. “That you can’t just stay in your own cloistered environment, that you are called to lead.”

McCorn said that getting young Black adults to understand the connections “between democracy and everyday living” is a major goal at Clinton.

“The Civil Rights Movement was, first and foremost, about one voice, one vote,” he said. “African-Americans literally died, gave their lives for the right to vote. I grew up in a generation right after the Civil Rights Movement where I understood that I had an obligation. I think this generation doesn’t quite see it that way. A lot of them believe their vote does not make a difference.”

McCorn said that Clinton’s faculty is trying to impress upon young minds that “the more you vote, the more your voice is magnified.”

It’s similar to the kinds of civics education Watt said that Greenville Tech will need to embark upon. The one thing AAMSI set out to do, after all, was keep young Black men engaged in their futures.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.