125 years of opportunity at Winston-Salem State

125 years of opportunity at Winston-Salem State
September 28
02:00 2017

By William Harris

Dr. Simon Green Atkins, education visionary and social justice advocate, had a bold dream to create an institution where every student would meet the challenges of their day, and where students were equipped with an education designed to intellectually prepare the “head, hand, and heart.”

The fulfillment of his dream began 125 years ago this week (on today, Sept. 28) with the founding of Slater Academy, which later would become Winston-Salem State University [WSSU].  

As a young man from the inner city of Charlotte, I didn’t think I was academically ready for college, but I promised my parents I would give it a semester. I arrived at Winston-Salem Teachers College [WSTC] with my dad and a skimpily packed suitcase to meet my Class of 1954 classmates, who became and remain a member of my extended family. WSTC was a much smaller place then, with two main programs – nursing and teaching – and only about 1,000 students.

If it wasn’t for the nurturing environment and the faculty who wanted me to succeed, my journey might have ended almost as soon as it started. But with the support of faculty, I thrived.

After becoming the first in my family to graduate from college, I served as a teacher and principal in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Schools. And, like many of my classmates, we were the first educators to integrate the public schools in North Carolina.

I also continued my education, earning my Ph.D. along the way. Later, I continued to focus on education as a program and executive director for both Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, New Jersey, and the College Board, in Philadelphia. WSSU instilled in me the passion to make a difference.

The university has grown so much over the years, but it has kept its same character. You still have that same little nucleus at the center of the campus, a family atmosphere. It still has that intimacy. There’s also a dedication – from faculty and staff to our Chancellor – to provide the support students need to succeed.  

Also unchanged is the desire among students and our more than 25,000 alumni to impact the world. Like our motto says, “Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve” Our graduates reside in 98 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and contribute to our state’s workforce as health care professionals, social workers, educators, scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and business and community leaders.

Atkins’ dream continues today at WSSU. With growing support from community and corporate partners, we are providing the resources for students to bridge gaps between them and their ability to engage their education. Earlier this year, WSSU received a national “social mobility innovator award” for its success helping underserved minority students succeed and thrive.

Also, our online Birth to Kindergarten Education (BKE) program was recently named one of the top in the nation.

And, just as Atkins saw the importance of a liberal education back in 1892, we are focused today on equipping our students with the critical thinking skills they need to be successful. The university is greatly expanding research, internships and study abroad opportunities. Our students also give back through service learning projects, an annual impact of nearly $1 million.

WSSU also is deeply connected to our hometown, focusing on social and economic justice, and health disparities in Winston-Salem.

This month, WSSU announced the launch of a Center for the Study of Economic Mobility, funded through a $3 million grant from the Center for Advancing Opportunity. This center will create and disseminate research to inform change that will help to reverse decades of economic immobility, helping to make the American dream more accessible to citizens in Winston-Salem. With success, Winston-Salem could become a blueprint for communities around the country.

To address health care equity, another critical issue in North Carolina, the School of Health Sciences [SOHS] this summer launched Project REACHE, funded through the United Way of Forsyth County. The program has greatly expanded the free health programs offered by faculty and students. This year, more than 1,000 residents in Forsyth County benefited directly by services offered by our SOHS.

Also this month, WSSU broke ground on a $53.3 million sciences building, part of more than $100 million in new construction planned on campus. This center, with collaborative spaces, will greatly expand undergraduate research and provide an unparalleled learning environment for students to pursue careers in high-demand STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields.  

I am certain WSSU’s founder would be happy to see how his vision continues today. Thank you, Dr. Atkins for dreaming big.

Dr. William U. Harris is a 1958 WSSU graduate and the chairman of the WSSU Board of Trustees.

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