At Edward Waters College, challenges and opportunities are ahead
President attracts new sources of capital; faculty, students see what
the college can offer.
By Matt Soergel
Ashley Hamn is an Edward Waters College senior who has big plans for the project she’s working on.
“We’re going for CNN, right, Doc?” she says.
Her professor smiles confidently. He’s Brian Seymour, a veteran of the California biotech industry who’s now chair of the school’s biology department.
And yes, he’s sure CNN will be calling about their project, an attempt to figure out how environmental factors in lower-income urban areas contribute to the high asthma rates of African-Americans.
Slideshow: Edward Waters College through the years
That effort involves rounding up blood samples from 200 people in the blocks around Edward Waters. Soon that project could be housed in the college’s new Health Disparities Center, a research center focusing on the health challenges that face black communities.
That center is good news for a college that needs some, said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania expert on historically black colleges.
“For some time I’ve been deeply concerned about Edward Waters,” she said. “I’m encouraged there’s someone at the helm who has the energy to build it back up.”
Gasman expects good things from its newest president, Nat Glover, the former Jacksonville sheriff and a 1966 graduate of Edward Waters.
“That’s what you need, getting people who can trust in his leadership,” said Gasman, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “And he needs to get out there, getting not just local attention but national attention.”
The college, founded in 1866 to educate freed slaves, has often had money problems, and it has seen its share of troubles over the years. Notable was an embarrassing plagiarism scandal in 2004 that put the school into a battle over its accreditation. It helped lead to a big drop in students and made big donors to the college wary about where they put their money.
Glover, though, often speaks about a “window of opportunity” at the college. A window that he acknowledges is open because of his position in the community — though he quickly says he doesn’t want to seem as if he’s bragging.
“We have to use that Nat Glover equity,” he said.
It seems to be having an effect. Fueled mostly by $100,000 checks from some of the city’s biggest philanthropists, the college raised $985,000 toward building a new Sheriff’s Office substation on campus that will also house classes for criminology students.
And a foundation started by CSX Transportation Chairman Michael Ward gave a $1 million challenge grant to improve the school’s facilities. For every $2 the college raises by a deadline this summer, the foundation will give a dollar, up to $1 million. So far it has $300,000 in commitments, the college says.
Preston Haskell, chairman of the Haskell Co., met with Glover Thursday afternoon and agreed to donate money — he hasn’t thought about how much yet, he said — toward meeting that challenge grant.
“I already had good feelings [about the college] and Nat confirmed those,” Haskell said after the meeting. “He’s the right person at the right time for the job. He’s really committed to making this the capstone of his career.”
Haskell also had some encouragement for the well-known former sheriff and one-time mayoral candidate. “I told him: ‘No one will refuse a phone call from you, or a proposed meeting with you. Take advantage of your standing in the community.’ ”
Glover became interim president in May 2010 and last fall was formally inaugurated as the school’s 29th president. He’s an unabashed advocate of his alma mater: Don’t write off Edward Waters, he says, or its students.
“Don’t underestimate these kids’ tenacity,” Glover said.
Steps to improvement
Edward Waters used to have open enrollment, meaning anyone with a high school diploma was eligible for admission. Now incoming students need a 2.5 high school GPA, though some students with a 2.0 are accepted on academic probation.
Ninety-eight percent of students rely on financial aid to pay the $17,586-a-year tuition. Graduation rates — students who enroll and get a degree in six years or less — were as low as 9 percent less than a decade ago; they’re up to about 15 percent, Glover said.
But he said they still need to go up — way up.
The school has about 750 students, down from 1,300 students a decade ago. Just under 3 percent of students are white and almost 2 percent are Hispanic.
Glover wants to rebuild the student body to 1,000 by 2015. He says the school is even looking into buying adjacent property to expand.
Hamn, the biology student, grew up at 60th and Pearl streets, about 5 miles from campus. She came to Edward Waters so she could keep playing basketball. That was life.
Once she got there, though, academics — particularly biology and health — took her interest. She’s already been accepted into a graduate health and nutrition program at Life University outside Atlanta. She plans to come back to Jacksonville. And after that?
Hamn laughs, recalling how she met Glover at a basketball game when he was still interim president. She told him: “Hi, my name’s Ashley Hamn, and I’m going to be president here one day.”
She said the school has improved in her time there. There’s more of an online presence, a better cafeteria, renovated buildings, more parking, better security.
“There’s a sense that somebody has a hold on what’s happening on campus, that someone’s responsible,” she said.
Prabir K. Mandal, a biology associate professor whose courses include one on African-American health, has noticed a change in his more than four years at the school. “The students are now more interested in learning,” he said. “They’re familiar with graduate schools, internships, fellowships outside.”
The college is moving in the right direction. “Who is the pilot?” Mandal said. “That’s very important. We have a good pilot now.”
Gasman, the Penn scholar, said small black colleges need charismatic leaders who are able to engage alumni and the philanthropists whose donations are the institutions’ fiscal lifeblood.
To become more relevant, Edward Waters needs to connect with all of Jacksonville, as well as its immediate neighborhood, she said. The planned Health Disparities Center, which will be as much a community resource as a research center, should be a key, she said.
There’s already a Family Services Center on campus, opened by the Florida Department of Children and Families. In addition, the New Town Success Zone, meant to serve the people in the neighborhood, is based at the school.
The new police substation is now under city budget review, as the city will kick in $900,000 toward it, Sheriff John Rutherford said.
“I think with President Glover and the team he’s put together, they’ll turn this thing around,” Rutherford said. “This may also help move toward their idea of maybe finding a niche in the law enforcement, criminology area.”
‘Special type of student’
Seymour, the biology chair, said he was looking for a challenge when he learned of Edward Waters and its history. He moved from California in 2010 to take the job, after 17 years in the biotech field and a couple teaching at a state school there.
He grew up in a poor farming community on the coast of Guyana, following his brother to college in America. Eventually he earned a doctorate in immunology from The University of California-Davis.
He’s found the challenges he was looking for, as many of his students come from tough backgrounds that wouldn’t immediately indicate success in later life. “But I see possibilities,” he said. “I see doctors. I see physician assistants. I see nurses.”
Floyd Willis is a primary care doctor at the Mayo Clinic who’s an organizer of the Health Disparities Center. His wife, Wanda, is an administrator at the college.
“She and I both agree that there is a student, a special type of student, who is going to thrive — not just survive — at a historically black college,” Willis said. “There’s a connection they feel to their history that they might not be able to find at a fine college, such as FSCJ or JU or UNF.”
One day last week, Reynold Henrilus Jr. wore a suit and tie, as he does many days, to classes. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, and is the first in his family to go to college. He wanted to go to a historically black college and chose Edward Waters when he got scholarships to play sousaphone in the marching band.
Some of the computer equipment isn’t as up to date as it should be, he said, but he appreciates the small classes and the school’s connection to history.
“I knew I could compete at other places, but I was kind of afraid to go to classes with 200 students,” Henrilus said. “I’m the youngest in my family and I have hopes and dreams that I want to accomplish in life. Going to college is only the first step.”
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