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Brown-Tougaloo partnership works to adapt in the face of COVID-19 uncertainty

With several initiatives halted by nation’s public health crisis, Brown, Tougaloo maintain strong ties

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement in May 1964, the Mississippi state legislature threatened to revoke the charter of Tougaloo College, one of the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges and universities, for “fostering 'agitation' rather than education.” Brown stepped in to help, forming a partnership that would eventually blossom into an academic and cultural exchange between the two schools.

Fifty-seven years later, the partnership between Brown and Tougaloo persists, but in the face of a global pandemic, the schools have been forced to reshape their collaboration. 

Certain programs that have developed since the partnership’s inception have moved fully online in order to ensure continued opportunities for students on both campuses, while other programs have yet to decide if they will be able to be held in person. 

In recent decades, the two colleges have not only worked together on political issues, bringing attention to the need for more federal funding for historically Black colleges and universities, but they have also developed numerous exchange programs to provide students with necessary opportunities for academic development.

These student-focused programs include the annual Civil Rights Trip to Tougaloo College, a week-long immersion program into Jackson, MS, and the iProv Fellowship, which is an opportunity for Tougaloo students to work with Providence nonprofit organizations. In addition, the Bonner Scholars Fellowship, a four-year program that gives students the opportunity to engage in non-profit work, normally hosts a visit to Tougaloo for sophomores each winter. 

The partnership has had a positive impact on students from both Brown and Tougaloo. “Brown students just get so much out of this (partnership): understanding the Civil Rights movement, having the chance to be in the South and the opportunity to be on a campus that’s really different from Brown’s,” said Betsy Shimberg, interim director of the Swearer Center, which houses the Bonner Community Fellowship and the iProv Fellowship.

Since its founding, more than 300 students have participated in the Brown-Tougaloo Semester Exchange Program, according to the program website

In March 2020, there were four Tougaloo students on exchange at Brown. When the pandemic closed universities across the nation, these students were forced to return home and finish the semester remotely, wrote Shontay Delalue, vice president for institutional equity and diversity and BTP program director at Brown, in an email to The Herald.

Since March, most of these student-based partnership programs have either halted or have slowly adapted to fully remote engagement. 

Through the iProv Fellowship, the University was still able to provide three Tougaloo students remote nonprofit work experience during summer 2020, an increase from the typical two students normally given the fellowship each summer, Shimberg said. These students were given an opportunity to connect with Providence-based nonprofits and participate in reflection seminars with Brown students, creating a cross-campus community even online.

The University plans to host iProv this summer, but has not yet decided whether it will be remote or in person. Though the pandemic has forced the University to reimagine what participation in the program looks like, Tougaloo students are “still providing an important capacity for Providence nonprofit organizations.”

Other initiatives, such as the Early Identification Program in Medicine, which allows Tougaloo students a route to early admission to Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, have also managed to adapt. The University is considering allowing students in the program to attend classes remotely, Nirva LaFortune, assistant director of scholars programs and diversity initiatives, wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Meanwhile, other programs have been paused, such as the University’s Bonner Scholars Program. The program’s week-long trip to Tougaloo each January typically includes a tour of Jackson’s Civil Rights history, an experience of life on campus and even the opportunity to attend a Tougaloo class. 

No plans have been finalized for the 2021 trip, Shimberg said. Depending on public health conditions, the trip could be postponed until August. Bonner students who were slated to attend the trip this year will be given an opportunity to do so in the future. “It’s too special not to go,” Shimberg said.

Students who have been on trips to Tougaloo in previous years agreed with this sentiment. 

“We learned about the history of the college and its impact on the Civil Rights movement,” wrote Kimberly Collins ’22 in an email to The Herald. Collins visited the college in January 2020  during one of the week-long visits offered by the University. “The experience contextualized a lot of my former studies about the Civil Rights Movement but also expanded my exposure to the significance of HBCUs like Tougaloo.” 

Alumni who participated in the program decades ago still reflect on its importance in their lives today. “We have Brown-Tougaloo Council members who participated in the program in the '60s and the '80s, and they continue to share how the opportunity changed their lives,” Delalue wrote.

The exchange program also provides an invaluable way for Brown students to “engage in the scholarship and academic experiences that an HBCU like Tougaloo can provide,” Collins wrote. “Brown’s connection to Tougaloo is critical to upholding its commitment to racial justice and supporting Black communities.”

While the partnership’s programs will continue to fluctuate to accommodate these unprecedented circumstances, the relationship between the two institutions remains strong. Leaders at both institutions are dedicated to finding “unique opportunities to maintain the progression and sustainability of the partnership," LaFortune wrote.

“The partnership is going on 57 years,” Delalue wrote. “While the pandemic has impacted both campuses in tremendous ways, the partnership will continue to thrive beyond this historic period.”


Alex Nadirashvili

Alex Nadirashvili is the managing editor of multimedia and social media for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. As a former University News editor, he covered faculty, higher education and student life, though his proudest legacy is The Brown Daily Herald TikTok account.


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