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United Way of Lancaster County


Juneteenth 2024: The role of a university (opinion)

Daniel Wubah (Source: Provided)

(Editor’s note: This essay is part of a collection examining the intersection of history, memory and education in connection with Juneteenth.)

In its events this year, the African American Cultural Alliance of Lancaster has been highlighting the theme “Knowledge Is Power.” This theme is a fitting place to start discussing the importance of Juneteenth.

The whole foundation of Juneteenth, when African American slaves were freed, is that some individuals didn’t even know they were free. Knowledge is the bedrock of education; without it, we have ignorance. Some didn’t know or weren’t aware of the emancipation of the slaves. If education had been accessible to all of them, they would have known about it then.

We often associate knowledge with light — if you don’t have knowledge, you’re in the dark; you need knowledge to light your way. This knowledge provides empowerment, which is not possible in the dark. When I think about it, knowledge opens doors and provides opportunities that ignorance doesn’t. Education enlightens students who would otherwise be challenged to find the light.

Knowledge is power, and when combined with education, it accelerates upward social mobility. Pennsylvania state Reps. Jordan Harris and Justin Fleming are great examples.

The two Millersville University alumni were in Lancaster recently to present on the current budget cycle and participate in a call for equitable basic education funding, respectively.

Rep. Harris was a panelist at the ‘Wake Up to the Issues” breakfast organized by the Lancaster Chamber. Rep. Fleming joined other central Pennsylvania House members for a rally held in coordination with PA Schools Work, a nonpartisan statewide movement that advocates for public schools to hold the rally.

The rally, organized by state Rep. Ismail Smith Wade-El, focused on securing a $1.1 billion increase in Basic Education funding, as projected by Gov. Josh Shapiro in his 2024-25 budget proposal.

Rep. Smith-Wade-El grew up on Millersville’s campus under the watchful eye of his mother, Rita Smith-Wade-El, an African American community activist and leader.

A professor of psychology and African American Studies at Millersville University, Rita Smith-Wade-El was also extremely involved in the Lancaster community. From 1995 until her death, she recruited volunteers for the Living the Dream Day of volunteering. She was also integral to the success of the local Martin Luther King Day observance.

Amber Sessoms is another Millersville alum who has used knowledge to help light her way and the path for countless others. She is the founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Natural Inclination LLC, where she supports courageous leaders in cultivating liberatory spaces for individuals to be their whole, authentic selves. She also serves on Millersville University’s Council of Trustees.

Recently, she wrote about how she benefited from the extraordinary leadership of Black women at Millersville. She said, “Growing up in a small community having never had a Black educator or truly being in spaces that affirmed my humanity, Millersville University transformed how I thought about the spaces I entered. Seeing Black female leaders, such as Dr. McNairy (Francine G. McNairy, the first female Black president in the State System, who served from 2003 to 2013), Dr. Rita Smith Wade-El, Ms. Patricia Hopson-Shelton, Dr. Doris Cross, and Dr. Beverly Skinner, showed me, with such clarity, that my uniqueness and positionality as a Black academic was not only valued but needed.”

Another local legend was Hazel I. Jackson. Jackson was the first Black woman to teach in the School District of Lancaster and the first Black female professor at Millersville University.

In 1970, when she was hired at Millersville, her presence made an immediate difference as she introduced African American literature to the curriculum and brought Black cultural celebrations to the campus. The author of a recent dramatic production about her said she was… “a woman who broke through barriers with sheer determination to fulfill her dreams, and in doing so, left us a legacy of class, dignity, and a blueprint for guiding the children of our community.”

At Millersville, we work hard to ensure access and affordability for all – to ensure everyone can be exposed to knowledge. We’ve kept tuition at the same level for the past six years, and this fall, we are returning to a flat rate tuition, which means students and their families will be paying less than they did last year. It will also allow students to take more for-credit internships that better prepare them for the workforce. The PA State System of Higher Education and the Board of Governors have helped us keep costs low.

We’ve also worked hard to ensure students have access to scholarships. During our latest capital campaign, we created 210 new scholarships for students. The “Imagine the Possible” fundraising campaign reached a record-breaking $110,056,873, making it the most successful fundraising effort in the history of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

This was the first campaign focused entirely on students, so the priority areas for donations included Scholarships, Student Learning Experiences, Marauder Athletics and Campus Revitalization. These scholarships are targeted towards empowering our students by increasing their knowledge.

Another way we are illuminating the path for our students at Millersville is through our Concerned Men and Concerned Women’s groups, where our faculty and staff work with our African American students to provide mentorship and enhance the student’s sense of belonging.

We also support the financial literacy needs of our students to help them navigate the basics of personal finance. Our goal is for them to leave the university with minimal debt and lifelong skills and competencies to succeed. Financial literacy leads to knowledge and light.

One of our students, Jordan Branch, is an example of how a college student can have an impact by providing light for other students. He has organized several events, including an expo for high school students in Lancaster County who are interested in engineering. In addition, he often serves as a motivational speaker to other students, especially African American and Latino students, who are interested in STEM disciplines.

We need all Central Pennsylvania residents to feel empowered through education. We need to talk about educating our Black and Brown residents year-round, not just on Juneteenth or during Black Heritage Month in February. We should include information about Juneteenth across the general curriculum, not as an afterthought. The contributions of African Americans should be integrated into more than civics and history classes.

Together, we can work to educate our citizens and give them the light to see their way forward.