The Gift of Higher Education: Give it the Power to Make Black Lives Matter

(From the Editor: This article is an excerpt from a speech that Kevin Warren — photo above — delivered at Georgetown University on Oct. 24, 2015. The complete text is available on LinkedIn Pulse. Kevin is president of the Industrial, Retail and Hospitality business group and a corporate officer for Xerox.)

Patrick F. Healy, S.J.
Patrick F. Healy, S.J. (1834-1910), President of Georgetown University from 1874 to 1882. (Photo courtesy Georgetown University.)

By Kevin Warren

Having just sent my youngest son off to college for his freshman year, I’ve very recently re-engaged with what it feels like to begin life on campus. Today’s students have options and opportunities that our generations could not have imagined. And aside from never needing to set foot in Bed, Bath & Beyond again, this experience reminded me how meaningful this campus really is. It represents endless opportunity, special traditions, life-long connections and friendships, experiences in time, and lessons learned. It helped shaped who I — who we — chose to become.

My Georgetown journey began at Healy Hall and I thought it worth reviewing the story of Patrick Healy. Healy is most well-known as the first black president of Georgetown and he did so much for the university, he is thought of as our second founder. But his story is much deeper.

Although the three Healy boys went through life identifying as Irish-American, the family hid its mixed-race ancestry in order to provide opportunities that would not have been possible had the world known their true roots. Patrick Healy is now recognized as the first African American to earn a PhD; the first to become a Jesuit priest; and the first to be president of a predominantly white college. But when Healy’s background was made public in the 1950s, students defaced his portrait — and 10 years passed before Georgetown even began admitting African Americans.

The Healy family had to deny their very identities to achieve success. We may not have to go to the same lengths today, but Healy’s portrait reminds me that there is still work to be done. You and I are empowered to do it.

Diversity of Color, Ideas and More

That story speaks to the diversity that was the foundation of my higher education and yours — a foundation that should exist for all. Not just in backgrounds or skin color, but the diversity of ideas, connections and experiences that breeds the creative thought, the self-awareness and the enriched perspective that has become one of the most important gifts of the university experience.

But today, even the most disciplined of students, find the gift of higher education to be elusive.

Average tuitions rose 440 percent in the past 25 years, outpacing inflation, and making college even less affordable to all. And let’s face it, when it comes to both affordability and attainment in higher education, most black Americans take off from a different starting line. Disparities in wealth, health, parental education, and even in course offerings and per-pupil investment continue to lay out a journey where blacks go without the same educational opportunities as whites.

Awakening the Soul

We have the power to help swing the pendulum – close that endowment gap, and get the high-achieving, low-income students to this campus, where they can spread their wings and make Patrick Healy-like contributions to the world. Research shows that when low-income students attend top universities, they thrive. But the fact remains that many don’t attend due to financial constraints, even when they’re qualified and accepted to attend.

It takes a special heart and a strong mind to understand that even the toughest of starts and the highest of hurdles in life make you more remarkable in the end.

Journalist David Brooks describes two sets of virtues in a column called “The Moral Bucket List” – the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume ones are what you bring to your careers. The eulogy ones are what’s talked about at your funeral.

Brooks puts the challenge this way:

“… People on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me?”

I believe that life does give back what you put into it. Many times over. So if our simple, yet collective actions on behalf of higher education inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, well, we certainly leave a legacy to be proud of.

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One Comment

  1. Cyndi November 1, 2016 - Reply

    This article really resonated with me in light of the state of current affairs in our country and the world at large, particularly the Healys denying identity to achieve success. That is a very interesting and important aspect of history. “Make a career of humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.” – Living in the Now and making a difference . . . I like that.

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