The title of Stanley Nelson’s most recent film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, immediately resonated with me as president of the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). A couple of months before I previewed the film, UVI, the only historically black college and university (HBCU) outside of the mainland, was struck by two Category 5 hurricanes within a two-week period.
Winds of 185 mph swept through our campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix, leaving trails of devastation and destruction in their wake. Our beautiful and scenic campuses looked like war zones. Ten buildings across both campuses were uninhabitable; faculty members lost their offices; students were deprived of classrooms and laboratories; and a treasured residence hall, and so many aspects of college life were no longer present. The estimated damage to our campuses ranges between $60 million to $80 million.
The theme we embraced in order to make sense out of catastrophe was “UVI Will Rise.” None of us had heard of the film, proof that this theme came from the depths of our collective consciousness. From our souls emerged the same spirit that had propelled HBCUs for generations — a spirit that defies the odds and faces challenges with resilience and creativity. We even created a “UVI Rise Relief Fund” to support the needs of our students and employees, and it has received support from over a hundred donors.
About 150 of our students on the St. Thomas campus were forced to live in a shelter residence hall that normally accommodates 70. They went 36 hours without power and running water. The morning after Hurricane Irma left, I visited the residence hall on our St. Thomas campus.
Through the creativity, resilience and dedication of our faculty, staff and administrators, we were able to resume classes within a month after the first hurricane arrived. This was done in the midst of the stark reality that neither campus had permanent power, islandwide curfews were in existence, and all night classes had to be canceled due to the lack of lighting on campus.
This tragedy created a laboratory for us to demonstrate our “academic resiliency.” Faculty members transformed some traditional classes to an online format, while others recorded their lectures and classes so that students who missed class would still be able to obtain the information.
The principle of “hold harmless” guided our perspective on how students should be treated in the midst of this major uncertainty. Students were given the right to withdraw without penalties, and faculty members were asked to be flexible and creative in how they conducted their classes and engaged our students. They would not lower their standards, but raised their patience and increased their passion. Faculty members and staff were being asked to embrace this academic resiliency spirit at a time when many of them had either lost their homes, electricity, transportation and precious belongings.
Approximately 350 of our 2,300 students withdrew during the fall 2017 semester, but the vast majority remained and completed the semester.
The experience was not perfect, but we rose above this horrendous challenge with dignity and pride. We were even asked to save the semester for another Caribbean educational institution — the University of St. Marten, and we responded to the call.
Recovery from two Category 5 hurricanes is not a straight line forward. It involves circular movements of frustration and disappointments. It is a dance of one step forward and two steps back at times.
The HBCU spirit of “rising” has no end because there are constant challenges, obstacles and forces formed against these institutions. Yet rising has a spiritual beauty that reminds us that if we remain faithful to our calling, we will always reach another plateau, even if it is just for a temporary moment.
I am very excited about the national debut of Tell Them We Are Rising because we want the world to know that HBCUs continue to rise, and that the University of the Virgin Islands is still rising from one of the most ferocious hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
UVI wants the world to know that the spirit embodied in this powerful and moving documentary is not isolated to struggles against social injustice, but includes struggles in the face of natural disasters, financial setbacks and national doubters.
Martin Luther King, a graduate of an HBCU, stated that “the ultimate measure of a man (or woman) is not where he (she) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he (she) stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
Tell Them We Are Rising is UVI’s marching anthem for the future. It is our continuing resolution to never cease from overcoming whatever the world or nature sends our way. This is the precious history and mission of HBCUs. We rose not because of the size of our endowments or the gifts of our philanthropic partners; we rose and continue to rise because of the spirit that resides within these institutions, and the precious individuals who choose to be associated with our special mission.
David Hall is the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, the only historically black college and university outside of mainland USA.