University News

Tougaloo exchange opens eyes, doors

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

When Courtney Johnson MD’12 arrived on College Hill in the dead of winter last January, she had never seen snow before.

But the weather wasn’t her only surprising or difficult experience. Johnson is one of nearly 600 students, faculty and staff from both Brown and Tougaloo College — a small historically black liberal arts school in Mississippi — to have participated in an exchange program since its inception in 1964.

Johnson and others involved with the program said it provides a valuable — though challenging and underused — opportunity for both schools’ students.

The relationship between Brown and Tougaloo began in the early 1960s, when several students went to Tougaloo to participate actively in the civil rights movement, according to Associate Dean of the Graduate School Valerie Wilson, the program’s director.

The official partnership that came out of this collaboration began on the 10th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, said Wilson, who was named associate provost and director of institutional diversity last week.

Since then, the program has evolved to include joint learning and research ventures, including a “virtual classroom” for student collaboration and an upcoming Brown-sponsored conference at Tougaloo,  a response to the report of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which was released in 2006.

But throughout the partnership’s evolution, the student exchange has remained its flagship program. Brown now sends a small but stable number of undergraduates to Tougaloo for semester-long exchanges, and several Tougaloo students come to Brown each semester.

The Tougaloo students participate in an undergraduate exchange and as part of the joint Early Identification Program, which grants Tougaloo students early admission to the Alpert Medical School and requires them to spend one semester at Brown during their undergraduate years.

Another school, another world

Students from both schools said participating in the exchange was an eye-opening experience for them.

“I had some really formative, valuable experiences,” said Evan Pulvers ‘10.5, who spent last fall at Tougaloo. “I got a glimpse into the South, I got some really good friends.”

Pulvers, who is white, continued, “I also think I got a better understanding of what it means to be a minority, in the numeric sense.”

Nina Fitzerman-Blue ’09, who participated in the exchange in fall 2007, also said going to Tougaloo changed the way she thought about race.

“I was one of a handful of non-African-American students on campus,” she said. “I’ve never had to be concerned about my race every single second of every single day, and that’s something minorities deal with every single second of every single day. So I’d say that I got a little taste of what minorities have had to deal with since the beginning of time in America.”

Johnson said Brown’s diversity provided her with a more complex view of race.
Race “wasn’t cut-and-dry, black-and-white any more,” she said.

Michael Sweeney ’70 said his experiences at Tougaloo in the fall of 1968 were “unbelievable and utterly fascinating.” They shaped the rest of his life, he said.
“I knew why I was at Brown after Tougaloo,” he said. The semester was his “most important sensitization to the real world,” said Sweeney, who now teaches anthropology and African-American studies at a high school in Portland, Ore.

Several Tougaloo students who attended Brown said the resources the University offers were a highlight of their experiences.

“You can get involved in so many ways,” said Andre Whittington, a junior from Tougaloo currently studying at Brown. “It’s overwhelming. That was the biggest shock.”

At Brown, Whittington said, “when you desire to do something, there’s no limitation.”
Steven Shadwick, a student in the Early Identification Program spending his last undergraduate semester at Brown, said the exchange “helps keep perspective open for both parties.”

He said he found Brown to be a very warm environment — except for the weather, that is.
“I felt extremely welcomed here,” Shadwick said. “The biggest thing was the cold.”
Johnson said she experienced her share of challenges and culture shock — especially coming from the South.

“It was a new environment, nothing like where I’d grown up,” she said. “Coming from a more conservative institution, being here totally opened my eyes to very liberal people and ideas. Things like guys and girls in the same dorm — that doesn’t happen at Tougaloo,” she said.

Shadwick, who lives in Chapin House, recalled a particularly unexpected moment.
“I was walking up the steps from Thayer onto the quad, and I just saw this crowd of naked people,” he said. “That was, I guess, exciting.”

A program in decline

But in recent years, the number of Brown students in the program has gone down, and the students from Tougaloo who participate in the exchange regularly outnumber those who come from Brown.

“People never think to do it,” said Fitzerman-Blue, who was Brown’s only participant during the 2007-2008 academic year.

Wilson acknowledged that fewer Brown students attend Tougaloo than the other way around. “Some of that has to do with how visible the program is,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s well-publicized,” Pulvers agreed.

The structure of the program, as well as disparities in the two schools’ resources, mean “there’s not a lot of incentive for Brown students to go,” she said.

Tougaloo has no graduate school, and enrolls fewer than 1,000 students.

“In terms of things like course offerings, Tougaloo has substantially fewer,” Pulvers said, adding that it was difficult to transfer credits and coordinate housing and course registration — problems Wilson said Brown was working to solve.

Tougaloo has several outstanding academic programs, particularly in music and Africana studies, according to Assistant Dean of Medicine Timothy Empkie, who has taught twice at the historically black college. “We could do a better job of understanding the faculty expertise at Tougaloo and communicating that to Brown students,” he said.

Empkie, Pulvers and Wilson also said the increasing number of opportunities for Brown students to study abroad may have diverted interest away from the Brown-Tougaloo exchange.

“Brown has so many resources for students, and recently more students have been more excited by the opportunity of going abroad,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she was confident the exchange would continue to serve students despite its current low enrollment.

“Each generation of presidents, students and administrators rediscover the partnership and rediscover it in the context of the current time and find it valuable,” she said. “The program has become adept at reinventing itself.”