Dillard Notable #1 of 2017: Hidden Physics

When I first arrived at Dillard in 2012 I had over 200 one on one meetings with members of the faculty and staff to learn as much as I could about Dillard. One of my most interesting conversations was with Dr. Abdalla Darwish, university professor of physics. He shared with me some statistics about how Dillard ranked in producing undergraduate degrees in physics, including information from the American Institute of Physics.

Dr. Abdalla Darwish

Lots of programs say they are the best in this or that, but there is a higher level of confidence in those claims when done by an impartial third party. So seeing the data from AIP was eye opening. And everywhere I went I always told people that Dillard was the #2 producer of African Americans with physics degrees. In the years after this study, I often checked the data and saw that in some years we even produced more physics graduates (regardless of race) than everyone in Louisiana but LSU.

As you know, we like to do commencement big. During my time as president our speakers have been Jeff Johnson, Michelle Obama, Denzel Washington, and Terrence J. Not bad. I had been working on Janelle Monae for a year after reading an interview with her in 2016. I knew she would be great. She spoke for the AKAs in the summer of 2016 and I reached out to my friend, Dorothy Wilson, the International President of AKA, to connect me with Janelle Monae. Several months later we were connected and she agreed to make the trip to Dillard!

Janelle Monae’s commencement speech was phenomenal. She had a strong message and provided context to her signature black and white wardrobe. Her speech was noted by Blavity as one of “7 commencement speeches that have blessed the class of 2017,” by People Celebrity as part of “The Best Advice from the Celebrity Commencement Speeches of 2017,” and received coverage by both New Orleans papers, The Root, Essence, Mashable, The Fader, Billboard, and the Los Angeles Times.

When we announced that Janelle Monae would be our commencement speaker, the timing was perfect. She was coming off of two hit movies, “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.” So we saw this as a huge win for Dillard, and a great opportunity to bring attention to the work of our graduates and the university.

But something greater happened.

I got a message from journalist Errin Whack. She remembered me talking about Dillard and physics (I always do), and she wanted to pitch a story to her editor about Dillard and physics since Janelle Monae was going to speak.

This is the lesson! I’m tired of HBCUs saying we need to tell our story. If you just go ahead and tell it, and not just any story but a GREAT story, others will tell your story for you. This is what happened for us.

Errin made the case and told the story. And soon you had Dillard physics in publications from coast to coast. This was huge for a small HBCU. Really, this is huge for any school. Ask any college president or advancement professional how exceptional it is for an institution to have a story about an academic program appearing in newspapers across the country. This was a rare feat.

We were in the news everywhere! New Orleans Advocate. New Orleans Times-Picayune. Washington Post. New York Times. Miami Herald. Kansas City Star. Sioux City (IA) Journal. New Jersey Herald. San Francisco Gate. Albuquerque Journal. Dayton Daily News. Sacramento Bee. Raleigh News & Observer. Seattle Times. The (Columbia SC) State. Atlanta Daily World. Philadelphia Tribune. The Griot.com. Essence. ABC News. NBC News. WDSU News. US News & World Report.

Again. I’d challenge you to find another small school or HBCU in 2017 with an AP wire story about an academic program. Not sports. Not accreditation woes. Not leadership changes. Not a band.

Physics. We’re talking about physics.

I told people I had never met a woman physics major until I got to Dillard. Now I see them all the time. So it made sense that in 2017 one of our physics grads also completed her masters in physics from North Carolina A&T. She was a 3 sport athlete at Dillard and recipient of the William Sutton Best All-Around student award. She epitomizes the pipeline of women we produce in physics.

So not only did Janelle Monae play a role in telling the story of the Hidden Figures, she also sparked an idea to tell the story of Dillard’s Hidden Physics!

And with that, I conclude my 7 notables of 2017. Let’s see what kind of magic we can make for 2018!