Delaware State president Harry Williams is motivated by seeing students persevere and succeed.//Photo by Ron Dubick
Melissa Harrington (left) and Donna Covington are two of the key players who are helping president Harry Williams continue to boost Delaware State’s profile.//Photo by Ron Dubick
In August, Tony Allen, a well-regarded civic leader and education advocate, joined Williams’ team as provost, the university’s chief academic officer.
Covington has taken charge of initiatives to boost retention and graduation rates. Harrington plays a key role in securing grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and in overseeing the research undertaken with those grants.
Covington, a former vice president at Lexmark, a global tech imaging company, has tried to leverage her business experience to improve outcomes for students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college. Through a partnership with the Gates Foundation, the university has hired additional counselors to work with students from the day they first set foot on campus. They’ve created a process called the Business Education Student Transformation that starts with each student receiving an individual development plan, a four-year roadmap to developing soft skills and connections in addition to completing the courses required to earn a degree.
Covington wants every business student to have a mentor and to have two paid summer internships before they graduate. She has already found 50 alumni and local business leaders to serve as mentors. And, in three years, the number of internships has jumped from 35 to 105. “We have 164 students who qualified for internships—the key criterion is a 3.0 GPA—so we don’t have enough internships for everyone yet,” she says.
Harrington says the university has gained strength and prominence in science research since she arrived on campus 16 years ago. At the time, “only one other faculty member was involved in research, the director of sponsored programs wasn’t even a full-time job, and there was sort of an attitude that research was something the faculty did for fun,” she says.
Now, “Research is critical to what we do, and it has a tremendous impact on outcomes for students.”
A decade ago, for example, Delaware State might have had a graduate accepted into medical or dental school once every second or third year. Now, she says, two or three graduates a year are admitted, and about one-third of the school’s science majors are going directly from graduation into study for advanced degrees.
The university currently offers 42 bachelor’s degrees, 16 master’s degrees and five doctoral programs through 21 academic departments in six colleges. It maintains its agricultural heritage through farms near Kenton and Smyrna, and its forward trajectory includes an airway science program based at the Delaware Airpark in Cheswold.
Allen, though he lacks experience as a higher education manager, brings to Delaware State a skill set and connectivity to the state’s power structure that could accelerate the university’s advances. Most recently the vice president in charge of corporate reputation at Bank of America and formerly the head of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Allen is chairman of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission and a trustee for the University of Delaware. In many respects, Allen says, his work in those positions has been “closely connected to the mission” of Delaware State.
Historically black colleges “need to remain contemporary, with a focus on skill building,” he says. And Delaware State must offer unique opportunities to the state’s residents: providing affordable higher education, meeting the needs of first-generation college students, helping them stay in school and, more broadly, “building a talent pipeline” that can guide young Delawareans through the K-12 system and into Delaware State.
As the university moves forward, one of its newer initiatives also takes it back to its roots. During some of the segregation era, the college operated a high school for students from Kent and Sussex counties. Three years ago, the university renewed its commitment to secondary education by opening its Early College High School in the former Dover Sheraton north of the main campus—an example of the talent pipeline Allen mentioned. This fall, students in grades 10-12 of the charter school will move to the main campus while a Ninth Grade Academy will remain in the old hotel.
The school’s program enables students to take college classes full time in their junior and senior years—“sitting next to bearded people,” school director Evelyn Edney jokes—so they can amass up to two years of college credits by the time they collect their high school diplomas.
Enrollment will max out at about 425 students. So far, most of those enrolled are interested in completing their college studies at Delaware State, Edney says. Credits are transferable, she adds, “and we’ve got some setting their sights on Harvard and other places.”
Meanwhile, in New Castle County, Delaware State sold its downtown Wilmington building a few years ago. It is now offering accelerated master’s degree programs in business, public administration and sports administration and a standard-track master’s in social work in the evening at the former Army Reserve Training Center on Kirkwood Highway. During the day, campus director Valerie Dinkins says, the Red Clay school district will use several classrooms in the building to offer technology programs for its high school students.
Though it’s less exposure to a campus environment than Early College High School students get, giving the Red Clay students a peek at a college setting can help as a recruiting tool, Williams says.
At Delaware State, “everybody is family,” recent graduate Kyle Sheppard of New Castle says. Sheppard, a graduate of St. Georges Technical High School, felt the university’s embrace when he needed scholarship assistance to continue his education after he ran out of funds. That experience prompted him, as a leader in student government, to launch a “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to encourage students struggling with financial and family matters to stay in school. Delaware State “meant the world to me,” he says.
Seeing students like Sheppard persevere and succeed is the motivation that Williams uses to keep moving forward.
“The more kids we get into college, the better the country will be. The more people we can get into the middle class, the better the country will be,” he says. “That’s the core of Delaware State.”