SXSWedu rolled on Tuesday morning, as educators filed into the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D for a keynote from Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell. Titled “#nationbuilding: How Paul Quinn College Became a Movement,” the presentation detailed Sorrell’s efforts to turn around Paul Quinn College (PQC), refocusing the HBCU in a community-based learning direction.
Sorrell told the story of his childhood hero, Thurgood Marshall — not the Supreme Court justice version, but the mischievous student at an all-black high school in Baltimore who was punished not by being marched out of the school in handcuffs when he misbehaved, but by being tasked with memorizing the Constitution. He asked the audience to imagine if you had educators who cared about you that much that they challenge you instead of treating you like a criminal.
He noted that HBCUs’ missions for the past 130 years, originally tasked with educating freed slaves and their progeny, to love and to lift those without many resources, wasn’t one that built billion-dollar endowments. As a result, HBCUs like Paul Quinn College were left in precarious situations financially.
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When he took the job, seeing that PQC didn’t have those resources, Sorrell set out to design an institution for today’s students: less of a college and more of a movement. Thus was born the concept of the Quinnite Nation, and the mantra that roses can grow out of concrete. Overall, 80-90% of its students are Pell Grant-eligible, 70% have zero expected family contributions, the average ACT score is a 17, 23% are Latino, and 40% come from outside of Texas.
The school’s ethos, “We over me,” is geared at building a community-based mindset in students. Its values include leading from wherever you are and practice leading every day, loving a cause larger than yourself and devote your life to it, leaving places better than you found them, choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, and accepting that people can be your kind without being your color. Its core beliefs are that poverty is evil, debt is bad, everyone can learn, and next is greater than now.
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Sorrell says the school's goal is to ultimately end poverty. Citing a story that billionaires made enough money last year that they could end extreme poverty seven times over, he said that the people who could end poverty aren’t doing it.
Noting that $37,000 is the average undergraduate student loan debt, that a majority of employers want graduates with real-world work experience, and that many students are already working jobs 20 hours a week that don’t fit with their academic goals, he said the system as it exists isn’t working. Inspired by the Cristo Rey network of schools, Sorrell pioneered the “New Urban College Model,” gaining the Dallas-based college recognition as the first federally-recognized urban work college.
Residential students are required to participate in a program where they work 10 to 20 hours a week in on- or off-campus positions and receive an annual stipend of $1,000 ti $2,000 each academic year. The school has raised its graduation rates over 20%, and 89% of first-time freshmen returned this year. Students now graduate with less than $10,000 in debt and no cost for textbooks, because PQC did away with those in favor of open-source materials, as well.
It has also set out to address the food desert in its surrounding community by doing away with its football team (“We weren’t playing on TV. We weren’t winning national championships.”) and replacing the football field with an organic farm that also serves as an experiential learning opportunity for students and an example of placing the community’s needs over those of the school.