September 5, 2013
Last week, on Aug. 28, our nation marked the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” a critical moment in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The culminating event of that day a half century ago was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. It was without question one of the most important speeches of the 20th century. Dr. King eloquently and powerfully set aspirations for change, change he would not be able to witness fully because of his tragic murder less than five years later in Memphis, Tenn.
There is one sentence from Dr. King’s speech that grabs me every time I read or listen to it, and it is this one: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Simple, powerful and self-evident, this vision resonates with parents the world over. And yet, this was not the way it was in the United States in 1963, and it was not the way it was at Georgia State University in 1963. It was only one year before “The March on Washington” that Georgia State, just a few blocks from Dr. King’s birthplace, admitted its first African-American student. She was Annette Lucille Hall, a 53-year-old teacher who enrolled in a summer course. Shortly thereafter Marybelle Reynolds Warner was the first full-time African-American student to enroll at Georgia State. In subsequent years enrollments of African-American students increased steadily, but the academic progress of those students did not reach the same levels as were being achieved by white students. Change had come, but as recently as 10 years ago there were significant gaps between success rates of African-American and white students on our campus.
Over the past decade Georgia State has made huge strides toward realizing Dr. King’s dream. Today, Georgia State is among the most diverse universities in America, and the percentage of African-Americans in the student body mirrors Georgia’s demographics.
There are no disparities in graduation rates here. Graduation rates for African-American students have climbed 30 points in the last 10 years – one of the largest increases at any college or university in our nation. An African-American freshman enrolling at Georgia State is just as likely to graduate as a white freshman.
Significantly, Georgia State’s path to eliminating disparities in graduation rates was not race based. Instead it was based on using objective data to develop, test and implement interventions that benefited all students regardless of race or ethnicity. As Dr. King dreamed, by focusing on students as people, not as members of a particular racial or ethnic group, Georgia State has become a model, demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve at high rates.
Georgia State now graduates more African-Americans each year than any other non-profit university in America, and more Asian-American students and more Hispanic students than any other university in Georgia. Our success in enrolling and graduating a student body that increasingly reflects the future demographics of the United States is the kind of change that will be needed for our nation to remain strong and vibrant for generations to come.
Our nation continues to pursue Dr. King’s dream. Our Georgia State community should be proud we have forged a new model for the 21st century, a model that pushes Dr. King’s dream a little bit closer to reality.