Like most people around the world, Lorraine Hennigen was shocked and distressed by the tragic death of George Floyd, a Black man who was arrested in Minneapolis and killed after a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked protests against police brutality throughout the United States and across the globe.
As Hennigen watched a live television broadcast of Floyd’s memorial service, she was inspired by the words of Scott Hagan, president of North Central University in Minneapolis, who challenged “every university president in the United States to establish your own George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund.”
Hennigen, who has three degrees from three universities, wrote to each of her alma maters to encourage them to establish a George Floyd Memorial Scholarship. With each note, she enclosed a check to help start the scholarship. One of those letters landed on the desk of Wright State University President Sue Edwards.
“I really wanted to do something to add my voice in a meaningful way,” said Hennigen, who graduated from Wright State in 1984 with a Master of Education. “For people who are invested in equity and righting the many wrongs of the past, I think this is one small way that we can behave as antiracists.”
Hennigen hopes the scholarship will help make a college education more affordable and accessible for promising students from underrepresented populations, especially young African American students.
“If we can make an impact on the life of one future leader and increase the equity in our society, then it will be worthwhile,” she said.
Like Hennigen, Andrea Kunk and the team at Peerless Technologies Corporation also felt compelled to support organizations that are fighting racial injustice. For Kunk, who is chief financial officer at Peerless and a two-time Wright State graduate, it was important to look at ways the company could help make a difference locally.
“We have a real passion for supporting Wright State students,” said Kunk, who directed Peerless Technologies’ gift to the university’s Retain the 9 Scholarship. “Scholarships are probably the number one avenue to helping support student success and retention.”
Launched in 2017 by Black Men on the Move, the Retain the 9 initiative was originally established to help retain the 9.9% of students on campus who are African American. Since then, Retain the 9 has evolved into a campus-wide initiative to address retention rates for all underrepresented students.
In 2018, a task force identified four key components that contributed to the low retention rates for minority students: personal, cultural, financial and academic. Adrian Williams, Student Government Association vice president, chaired the task force, and Wright State student Kevin Jones served as vice chair.
Working with university administration, faculty, staff and students, the Retain the 9 Task Force established the Office of Student Retention. The Retention Team, which is comprised of both staff and students, helps to identify and remove barriers to student success.
“That office is aimed at addressing and helping students combat any issues that they may face while in college that may hinder their path toward graduation,” said Williams.
Along with addressing the retention of minority students and any other students who might be facing economic and social disadvantages, Williams is committed to raising $10,000 within the next 12 to 18 months to endow the Retain the 9 Scholarship. Gifts to an endowed scholarship fund are invested and provide income to continue to grow the scholarship in perpetuity.
“The scholarship will be here as long as the university is here,” said Williams, who is collaborating with the African American Alumni Society, the Wright State Alumni Association and various student organizations to raise money for the scholarship.
Williams, who will graduate in spring 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience, considers the scholarship part of his legacy at Wright State.
“It’s important for students who are disadvantaged to feel like they’re a priority at the university,” he said. “I’m one of those students who’s been given a platform to do a lot of good. I feel like it’s my personal responsibility to advocate for those after me.”
As a young Black male, Williams knows firsthand the difficulties that many minority students face.
“In my field of study, it has definitely been challenging,” said Williams, who is applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs in computational neuroscience. “I’ve never had a professor that looks like me in my field. I’m often one of two or three Black students in my program. I’m often the only person of color at tables of discussion for university decisions. It’s taught me to never be afraid to let people know what your experiences are like.”
For Hennigan, listening to the stories of Williams and other African Americans is an important part of her educational process and her ongoing commitment to racial equality.
“We can’t dismiss the calls that our Black brothers and sisters are making. They’re not exaggerating. This is not a problem that is a one and done solution,” she said. “We have to be mindful and vigilant. And we have to make a daily commitment to a just and equitable society.”