Friday, April 15, 2016

UVI Celebrates 54th Charter Day with UVI Pride

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. speaks at UVI's Charter Day Ceremony.Patrice Harris, Thurgood Marshall Scholar and UVI communication student; Miss UVI 2015-2016 Katherine Callwood and Zoe Walker, Thurgood Marshall Scholar and UVI communication student also spoke at that the celebration.

The University of the Virgin Islands celebrated the 54th anniversary of its charter on Friday morning, March 18, with an inspiring program that showcased the talent, leadership and charisma that has made UVI one of the most successful Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in America. Themes of vision, excellence, and intrepidity dominated the event. Keynote speaker Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), emphasized all of the above as he discussed the historic and future relevancy of HBCUs. 

The event was teleconferenced between the St. Thomas Campus and the Albert A. Sheen Campus on St. Croix, so that the whole University could celebrate together. It was a morning to remember. From the warm welcome of a jubilant President David Hall to the fearless remarks of student speakers, to the electrifying music of the Steve Turre Jazz Quintet, to the candid, emboldening and often hilarious words of Taylor, UVI’s greatest asset – its community members – was on flamboyant display.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.
Charter Day is a way to not only remember, but to actually touch and embrace the spirit of the UVI’s founders by continuing to set bold and ambitious goals,” said Hall, who set the tone by recognizing the hard work, dedication and vision of those who brought the University into existence 54 years ago. By way of an illustration, he spoke of the five new business degree programs that will launch in the fall of 2017, emerging Ph.D. programs, newly established Innovation Center and of course the nascent medical school. “Charter Day is a reminder of our founders’ high aim,” he said.

Katherine Callwood, Miss UVI 2015-2016, echoed Dr. Hall’s sentiment by describing UVI as an elastic institution that has evolved from college to university to HBCU. “There is no doubt in my mind that our institution will continue to change with the times,” she said, adding that one of UVI’s greatest strengths lies in its flexibility; in its capacity to adapt to the constant resurfacing of the territory, America and the world.

Following a humorous creative word selection by a humanities student and an
Steve Turre Jazz Quintet
earnest vocal selection by Ka’Reema Moses, President Hall introduced Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. as an attorney who left a successful legal practice to “… answer a call. By heading the Thurgood Marshall College Fund,” Hall said, “Taylor has become an unrelenting advocate for students at public HBCUs.”

Taylor began his remarks by praising the many new developments and innovations that are currently underway at the University of the Virgin Islands, and by congratulating President Hall for being awarded the TMCF leadership award. However, he said, while UVI appears to be expanding in a host of exciting ways, this has not been a trend among mainland HBCUs. Most public HBCUs are struggling just to survive, and some have been forced to close their doors. “I was reminded of the Dickens novel, ‘The Tale of Two Cities’,” Taylor said. “You all are experiencing the best of times down here in the Virgin Islands, while up in the states a lot of HBCUs are facing the worst of times. There used to be 117 HBCUs in America; there are now 105.”

Taylor attributed these difficulties to underfunding, unfavorable education policy, and competition. But the biggest problem, he said, is a lack of support from the very people for whom these institutions matter the most. “The problem isn’t that white folks aren’t supporting HBCUs,” he exclaimed. “The problem is that black folks aren’t supporting HBCUs.”

Taylor went on to report that only 10 percent of black college and university
Patrice Harris 
students nationwide are choosing to attend HBCUs, and that as a result we may not be able to take for granted that public HBCUs will always exist, will always be able to ensure high quality education at affordable prices for people of all ethnicities. “We must celebrate the past, but think seriously about the future,” said Taylor. “If we don’t take pride in our own institutions, nobody else will.”

Thurgood Marshall College Fund student ambassador, Patrice Harris, spoke with precocious gravity and insight about her humbling experiences at the TMCF Leadership Institute. “There I was forced to let go of my sense of entitlement and embrace the hard work that would enable me to develop my own brand, maintain high standards, and negotiate an imperfect world without letting it wear me down,” she said. “I gained a tremendous amount of confidence.”

Harris’ St. Croix counterpart, TMCF student ambassador Zoe T.V. Walker, spoke
Zoe Walker
with comparable passion and grace about the enormity of the impact that both UVI and TMCF have had on her life. “Having a great support system on and off campus afforded me the opportunity to achieve excellence,” she said. Both Harris and Walker were effusive in their expressions of gratitude to TMCF for “… always believing in its students,” said Harris, “constantly looking for ways to increase opportunities for students of HBCUs, and for teaching us to take pride in our HBCUs.”

During a break between remarks, the ground floor conference room of the ACC erupted into a squall of jazz by the Steve Turre Quintet, which included percussionist Dion Parson who is currently an artist in residence at UVI. The dynamic performance, which featured virtuosic solos on trombone, trumpet, keyboards, drums and stand-up bass, climaxed with Turre’s signature conch shell performance in which he juggled shells of varying sizes, playing them with the same dexterity that he would apply to any traditional horn.

President Hall concluded the 54th Charter Day program by declaring it the “Best-Ever” Charter Day celebration in the history of UVI Charter Day celebrations. And while he acknowledged with his characteristically understated humor that the comment was mildly outrageous, it was clear that not a person in the room would have disagreed. As the conclusion of the Charter Day program gave way to the commencement of UVI’s Pride festivities, it was evident that members of the UVI community had gained a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for what it means to show, and genuinely feel, pride in its HBCU.