Written by Ursula Payne
The semester is off to a solid start, particularly as COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationally and weather events increase in intensity. The news carries multiple issues of the day, jostling between U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, questions about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, the passing of the Texas abortion law 2021, and whether states should ban critical race theory in schools. In light of these issues, I am encouraged and hopeful because of being able to reconnect with students, faculty and staff across campus. The energy in my classes has been electric and exciting. It brings me joy to see students creating new and deepening established social bonds in my classes. As I was thinking about what to write for this commentary, Frederick Douglass’s address Blessings of Liberty and Education, delivered on Sept. 3, 1894 provided me with inspiration and guidance. Frederick Douglass delivered this address at the dedication of an educational institution for Black children in Manassas, Virginia. With this in mind I have identified three items to consider as our campus community progresses boldly into the 2021-2022 academic year.
Our ability to strengthen our social and community context.
The 2020 Healthy People Initiative identifies social cohesion as being integral to developing strong relationships and achieving feelings of solidarity within a community. Frederick Douglass felt that education enhanced our ability as people and leaders to work in collaboration with others and to self-reflect as a way of rising to a higher plane of service. The relationships that we develop at SRU are not only important for our wellbeing, but also for developing strong networks. There are two dynamics at work on the SRU campus, the first being the excitement of contemplating your life’s work in the world. The second dynamic holds the tension of wondering what the future has in store for you. SRU’s campus is where students can test their liberty and expand their world views in conversation with other people who will challenge their perspective. Douglass believed that educational institutions were spaces where students learned how to build economic stability for themselves, while transforming their minds and environments.
Understanding why our collective focus needs to be on increasing educational attainment across race, gender, region, economic and academic disciplines.
We have returned to campus to engage our minds and bodies in the work of learning and advancing our human condition. Frederick Douglass believed in the power of the human mind and he championed education for unfolding and strengthening the human soul. Douglass warned that without education, the human mind would descend into ignorance as a prisoner without hope. The State of Pennsylvania Education Attainment Charts shows PA as being slightly below the national average for bachelor’s degrees at 31.4%. The breakout by race is 32% white, 19% Black, 18% American Indian, 56% Asian, 23% Native Hawaiian, 16.2% Hispanic. Why should this matter to the SRU community of students, faculty, and staff? In order to keep up with the future of workforce demands, the educational levels in the state of PA and the across the United States needs to increase. The relationships between educational attainment, employment status and economic performance impact how one experiences social cohesion and wellbeing. Douglass talked about the dignity of labor and incentives towards creating a noble life. Graduating with your degree from SRU represents a major step towards meeting your life goals and realizing the blessings of liberty and education.
Acknowledge how we have all changed for the better as we move through stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frederick Douglass drew upon his experiences of chattel slavery to illustrate his transformative journey towards emancipation. Education was a critical component of his experience. Overcoming ignorance and coming into contact with diverse populations of people throughout the U.S. and abroad, led him to embrace the expansiveness of humanity. We have a collective responsibility to our future selves and our current community to be better human beings for the future of our world. We have all been impacted and humbled by the pandemic. Acknowledging each other’s humanity even as we disagree uplifts our community. As I consider my own time as a student at SRU in the 90’s, I was able to develop social networks that still support my personal and professional life today. As a Black female, cis-gendered college student on a predominantly white campus I stumbled my way through learning how to reach across the boundaries of race, gender and class to develop and deepen relationships with my peers and faculty members. Engaging with peers and experiencing faculty guidance in student/faculty research projects or community-based initiatives helped me to mature as a human being and explore the potential of my life work. One of the great joys of my work as a professor and the director of the Frederick Douglass Institute is to participate in the evolution of my students as they discover their future aspirations. One of the ways we do this is by engaging each other (and other faculty) in various creative, informational and academic collaborative projects across campus. Friendships have developed across academic and disciplinary silos which bring into view the complexity and challenges of the institution, along with the daily blessings of life, work and education.
In closing, these items are ways to get us thinking about how to enhance our solidarity as a community, move forward together as a diverse body of learners and adapt to changes as we encounter the unknown challenges of the year.