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It is HBCU Week in Wilmington, and Magic Johnson is coming to visit.
The event that started in 2017 as a small college fair to promote college opportunities help local students learn more about Historically Black Colleges and Universities has exploded into a full week of concerts, service opportunities, symposia, and a live taping of ESPN’s “First Take” with Wilmington’s official HBCU Week Ambassador, Stephen A. Smith.
But the heart of HBCU Week is the 2019 College Fair, where hundreds of Wilmington students will be accepted into college on the spot this Saturday.
Behind this runaway success, under the direction of Mayor Mike Purzycki, are two powerhouse HBCU alums inside his office: Special Assistant to the Mayor Ashley Christopher (Howard University) and Community Referral Specialist Earl Cooper (Morehouse College). We sat down to ask what about how this event has grown so quickly:
Ashley: So it started as a small idea to gather just a few HBCUs in our lobby to engage recruiters and learn more about HBCUs – but the response was overwhelming. We thought we’d have five HBCUs. We ended up with 13. We thought we’d have 200 kids. We ended up with 700.
Earl: If you come, you’re seeing hundreds of kids get admitted into college, and that excitement just creates an energy within the room. It’s something special.
Ashley: If you’re a senior and you bring a copy of your transcript and SAT or ACT score, you will be considered for admission on the spot. More than 1,000 have afforded that opportunity, and over a million dollars in scholarships have been awarded at this fair.
Earl: We had a kid get a full ride in 20 minutes. He’s at Lincoln University now. To see burdens lifted off families because now they have a scholarship … it’s a great way to start senior year.
Ashley: We have secured a partnership with the Chemours Company, and they have made a commitment of $400,000 for 10 scholarships to students who commit to a STEM major at an HBCU. We’ve awarded five of those scholarships so far. And the part that tickles me the most is that two of those young ladies are at Howard University now. I just I love just watching that.
Earl: The growth of the week has been crazy. It’s been organic, though. Each event has a purpose, a ‘why.’ A lot of HBCUs were founded in the church, and so that’s why we kick it off with a church service. We have a party. We have community service projects.
Ashley: We had an HBCU week celebration dinner last March and we invited Stephen A. Smith as our honoree. He is an HBCU alum from Winston-Salem State University. He was so overwhelmed with the hospitality and the mission that he decided to come on as our official Ambassador. That just took HBCU week to another dimension. This has become a nationally recognized event.
Earl: We’re just going to keep growing until we can’t grow anymore.
Ashley: There are commercials promoting it on ESPN. He’s bringing his show, “First Take,” to the 76ers Fieldhouse for a live broadcast during the college fair, with his two co-hosts, Max and Molly. Magic Johnson’s going to join them. And on Wednesday, we are having in R&B concert.
Earl: It’s a series founded by Heather Lowery, vice president of talent and touring at Live Nation Urban. She’s from Delaware and she’s an HBCU alum from Spelman College.
Ashley: She’s taking this all-female line up around the world. They have been selling out like wildfire and I love the movement behind it.
Earl: It just feels natural to be connecting all these people who are doing amazing things and who are all HBCU alums. That’s special.
Ashley: And the Battle of the Bands is going to be incredible. We have one of the best HBCU bands coming, North Carolina A&T. They’ve got over 250 members and they are incredible. They’ll be here at Frawley Stadium this Saturday.
Earl: I grew up knowing very little bit about HBCUs and basically nothing about Morehouse, and I had a life-changing experience by attending the school. My senior year at Morehouse, I actually published a children’s book about Morehouse, to just start planting that seed at that early age. So this is a passion that I’ve always had. To be able to do it on this size of a stage is just fantastic.
Ashley: HBCUs have played such an integral role in my life. I went to Howard University for undergraduate school and then the University of DC for law school. I tell people all the time: I’m a black woman. I have my entire life to be a minority. So going to these institutions just put me in a place where I was surrounded by people that look like me, with similar goals and aspirations. And it cultivated this internal confidence that I have now, so when I walk into different rooms or situations, I know that I belong and I add value.
I could go on and on.
Earl: I’m the youngest person in the office, and people are sometimes tough on millennials — they say we’re just constantly pushing the needle — but I appreciate that the mayor has allowed us to get creative, think outside the box, and give us all the support – the contacts, the finances, the resources – to make this work. And it just makes sense. There is a demand for this. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.