WINSTON-SALEM (April 4, 2019) – Higher education generates benefits to the entire community. But its most immediate impact is the difference it makes in the life of an individual student.
That was the focus of a Social Mobility Summit this week at Winston-Salem State University, one of only five universities in the nation that have ranked in the Top 20 in CollegeNET’s Social Mobility Index for five consecutive years.1
Winston-Salem State and other institutions have their work cut out for them: Several speakers noted that a study by Stanford economist Raj Chetty found Forsyth County – where WSSU is situated – ranks third from the bottom in the nation for economic mobility.
At Winston-Salem State, raising those prospects starts with a focus on each student.
“The question we ask at Winston-Salem State University is, ‘Can we provide a high-quality education to each and every student that comes?’” Chancellor Elwood Robinson said in his keynote address.
Though WSSU can’t predict what jobs will exist in 10 or 20 years, “We want to give every student what they need to be successful,” Robinson said. Critical thinking and problem-solving, for example, will always be in demand.
Provost Anthony Graham pointed to a number of recent success stories:
- Rasheeda Shankle, a single mother who transferred from Forsyth Technical Community College to WSSU in 2015, graduated and has already launched a nonprofit to help other single mothers break out of poverty;
- Aaron Brown of Kinston, who is now enrolled at the Emory University School of Public Health; and
- Thomas Fair IV, who earned a full scholarship to the Baylor College of Medicine.
“It’s about the individual students,” Graham said. “We see these individuals when they arrive – and we treat them as individuals.”
Particularly for students who are the first in their family to go to college, said Robinson, college culture can be challenging. Who tells you about visiting your professor during office hours? Who tells you to talk with your advisor? Who tells you about internships?
Robinson shared the recollection of a bewildered Princeton University freshman who slowly realized her classmates knew how to ask questions of their professors or seek help during office hours because “they know that’s how you succeed in life.”
That student was Michelle Obama.
“You need to have the kind of support services that are necessary for you to complete your education,” Robinson said.
So each student at Winston-Salem State is assigned an “academic success coach” to help navigate the college bureaucracy.
Winston-Salem State has a relatively high percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, and students from low-income families often face financial challenges as well.
“Fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, sometimes will send a student home,” Robinson said. “They don’t ask – they just leave.”
A WSSU program that provides emergency grants has helped, he said – of 162 students who received the grants, 159 graduated.
WSSU asks its students to participate in “High-Impact Practices” – community-based learning, hands-on research with a professor, internships or study abroad. Such experiential learning can be particularly important for minority students, who don’t always excel in conventional classroom settings, said Graham.
In the third year of the initiative, 67% – or 2,441 WSSU students – engaged in at least one of the practices.
“I don’t know of another university that does that,” said Robinson. “That’s what makes us unique.”
Alexis Lassiter, a senior economics major from Charlotte, said she definitely benefited from her experience as a scholar in WSSU’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility.
“Everything you’ve learned is real – real data … real world,” Lassiter said.
And despite the focus on individual students, multiple speakers noted a collective benefit to the community once students discover their personal passion.
Lassiter – who will become a Teach for America teacher – pointed to Winston-Salem State’s motto: Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.
“Thank you, Winston-Salem State University, for taking a chance on me,” she said. “I am a disrupter. I am a servant leader. I am a testimony.”