Commentary: ‘It’s not where you are from; it’s where you are at’

Happy New Year!

One of my favorite musicians is William Michael Griffin Jr., known by late 80s hip-hop enthusiasts as “Rakim.” In his 1987 song “I Know You Got Soul” rests my favorite lyric: “Even other states come right and exact / It’s not where you are from, it’s where you are at.” The ending preposition notwithstanding, the meaning of that lyric is why I write today, on my first official day as the president of Delaware State University.

Since 1891, as the first seven students arrived at the one-room schoolhouse of the Delaware College for Colored Students, our mission has been focused on providing quality education to young people otherwise locked out of a system that was entirely focused on sustaining two unequal Americas.

Even 129 years later, we have never deviated from that fundamental credo of “Educational Access and Opportunity For All,” regardless of where you come from or what you look like. We have done so without sacrificing either quality or the ability to focus on traditionally underrepresented students.

The results are clear and compelling — 21,000 living alumni who realized their dreams of a college education in Dover, and have utilized that education to excel in every field of human endeavor: the arts, the sciences, technology, business, and literature. They have become servant leaders for their families, their churches, and their communities.

Dr. Tony Allen

What’s more, is where we are today:

• A university with the largest enrollment in its history at 5,000 students;

• A $23 million research portfolio;

• Best-in-class academic offerings including a little-known aviation program that boasts a 100% placement rate and more pilots of color than any other institution in the nation;

• A four-year, state-sponsored INSPIRE program available to every eligible Delaware high school graduate with a 2.75 GPA;

• An Early College High School feeder program whose first two graduating classes on average already earned nearly 53 college credits before they began their college career, saving their families at least $47,000 in college costs. More than half of those students came to Delaware State University to complete their college education.

I could go on about the many achievements of this incredible institution, but let me quantify it this way. As Delaware’s only state university and only HBCU, the little institution along Route 13 behind the brick wall contributes $260 million, every year to Delaware’s economy, $80 million of which is right here in Kent County.

“It’s not where you are from; it’s where you are at.” And here is what lies ahead.

We are on a quest to be the most diverse, contemporary Historically Black College or University in America. Diverse — Contemporary — HBCU! Taken together, those terms connote aspiration, quality, and deep cultural pride while tying into our core values of diversity, integrity, scholarship, community and outreach. Working together, I believe we can have them all.

Diverse

True diversity is tough. Mixing cultures and belief systems is challenging, and you have to confront friction, misunderstandings, and different perspectives on a daily basis in an intentional manner. This is our calling — to be an example of how such diversity in our faculty, staff, and student body can be made to show its strength. I am intensely proud of the vibrant patchwork quilt they have woven here, which I display to everyone I meet as evidence that we prove the rule: our diversity is our strength!

Contemporary

Many of our current freshmen will one day work in careers that don’t exist yet. Our graduates quickly discover that while the education we’ve given them has been first-rate, technology and society change so rapidly that they must embrace the concept of lifetime learning, with graduation as only the beginning of the journey.

Being contemporary means more than providing iPads for all incoming freshmen, more than digital instruction. It means shifting our perspective from how we teach toward how our students learn. It means staying current in our fields, to include projecting trends and innovations so that our students will be ahead of the curve when they go out into the world.

HBCU

Is there still a role for HBCUs in America? Would even students of color be better served by completely dispersing them through the breadth of majority-serving institutions?

To state my position unambiguously: Delaware State University’s future centers on always embracing our HBCU heritage, and having our actions testify every day that we are among the most important institutions in the world, literally building “a more perfect Union” and educating better global citizens.

Our core mission has not changed in 129 years: find young people who are as bright, energetic and driven as any in the world, and pay special attention to those who don’t realize their power and promise. Provide them an exceptional education and never let them forget where they come from, or the ones who made the sacrifices to give this opportunity. Whether they are Dreamers from Georgia or first-generation students from Georgetown, we are the place to call home.

Last fall, I wrote to the Delaware State community to say that I was profoundly grateful to God for affording me the enormous, life-changing opportunity to serve this university, and to be entrusted with a leadership role in finding our collective place of continued usefulness and honor in the world. For each of us at Delaware State University, doing so requires that we be better tomorrow than we are today, work harder — and smarter — than we have before, and strive without fear . . . TOGETHER.

Our ancestors are counting on us and screaming from the heavens, “It’s not where you are from; it’s where you are at.” Delaware’s State University is going places. Join us.

Dr. Tony Allen, who first arrived at Delaware State University in the summer of 2017 as its provost and executive vice president of academic affairs, is, as of today, the 12th president in the 129-year history of the First State’s Historically Black Institution of Higher Education.