In 2017, Ashley Christopher, special assistant to Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, drew a deep breath before making the most pivotal ask of her career.
“It was intimidating to go to my boss— an older, wealthy white man—and say, ‘I want to throw the biggest, Blackest event in Wilmington history,’” Christopher says. “I have to credit Mayor Mike, who is a dear friend. He said, ‘OK. Let’s have at it.’”
That’s all Christopher, who still works for the city, needed to run with her idea for what was then a college fair that would give 200 Wilmington high school students an audience with recruiters from five historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), who would offer on-the-spot admissions and scholarships.
Christopher says her experience at predominantly white schools inspired her to look to HBCUs for college and law school—she graduated from Howard and the University of the District of Columbia.
“I wanted to really embrace my culture,” she says. “I was sick of being the minority. And it was the best decision I could have made. Now I want to expose as many kids as possible to the opportunity to attend an HBCU.”
Five years later, Christopher’s idea has spawned a nonprofit called the HBCU Week Foundation and a weeklong movement with events significant to HBCU culture, like Battle of the Bands. “It’s an authentic Homecoming experience,” she says.
To date, the organization has awarded over 3,500 admissions and more than $20 million in scholarships directly from HBCUs; additional millions come from corporate partnerships.
Christopher has struck strategic corporate relationships with ChristianaCare, which recently committed 10 $50,000 scholarships; Chemours, Capital One and the NFL. “We seek to create tangible results when it comes to true equity,” she says. “We’re working to diversify corporate America in every single industry: STEM, health care, banking.”
HBCU Week 2021 saw 528 students offered on-the-spot acceptances, with 478 scholarships totaling more than $10 million. Up next? Disney World.
“My wildest dream for HBCU Week is that it becomes as well-known as the Super Bowl, and with this new partnership with Disney—the biggest brand in the world—I think we’re on our way,” Christopher says.
After the Wilmington event in September, the Magic Kingdom will host HBCU Week Oct. 6–9. “Disney is putting us on a world stage,” she says. “Even talking about it, it still doesn’t seem real.”
Christopher expects more than 10,000 students, with some Delaware presence. “Delaware State University has been a fantastic partner, and I’m so happy [DSU president] Dr. Tony Allen and the band will be with us,” she says. So will a few lucky Wilmington families.
“One of the best things about this is the impact on these families,” Christopher continues. This year, 1,700 students applied for 150 $40,000 Future of STEM awards, founded by the American Chemistry Council and Chemours. “Once we got it down to 150 and started calling people, the screaming, the crying, the stories of ‘I’d never be able to go to college if not for this.’ …It’s just incredible.” HBCU Week might be heading south, but Christopher still reps for her city. “This is a Wilmington initiative and it will stay in Wilmington,” she says. “I want to wrap my arms around as many kids as I can here and do the work now so when decisions are being made around tables in this country, people who look like me are sitting front and center.”
Related: The Future Is Bright for Delaware Women With Fresh Start Scholarships