Fifty years championing diversity
On the heels of the race riots that took place across America, Bermudian Rose Wilson-Hill joined the staff at Ohio State University.
It was 1971 and, with relatively few minorities on campus, African-American students were demanding change.
Ms Wilson-Hill was part of a team that made that happen.
This month she was rewarded for her efforts by Columbus Business First, a news publication in central Ohio that considers worthy individuals and organisations for its Business in Diversity Awards each year.
“I’m still in shock to be honest with you,” said the 75-year-old, whose Lifetime Achievement Award is reserved for “individuals who have devoted a major portion of their professional lives to enhancing the practice of diversity and inclusion”.
“This is a conglomerate that’s not on campus. It has nothing to do with Ohio State University. It is a fairly large conglomerate that has a lot of corporate entities that are connected with it.”
The daughter of the late Rudolph and Mayville Wilson, Ms Wilson-Hill was hired as executive assistant to Frank Hale, the president of Oakwood University, after she graduated from the Alabama institution.
Now special assistant to the vice-provost/director of administration/special programmes at Ohio State, she had no idea what she was in for when she agreed to follow Dr Hale there.
“Minority affairs” was one of his many responsibilities; it fell to the two of them to get African-Americans through the doors of the school.
“Dr Hale and I sat down and we started a strategy to find more black students,” Ms Wilson-Hill said.
“At the time it was only blacks, but in later years it became Hispanics and Asian-Americans and American-Indians and Pacific Islanders as well. But we started with African-Americans and that’s how we began our work there.
“We did a lot of things that were centred around how black students would be comfortable, ancillary things to their classroom experiences.”
Dr Hale got on the phone, put his contacts to work and established a programme that is now in its 50th year.
“We invited about 50 colleges and universities across the country to send us their top five seniors,” Ms Wilson-Hill said, explaining the students would spend a day exploring the relevant department to see if it was a good fit.
She also spent 18 years on the road, “going from campus to campus” largely in the spring and the autumn, to try and entice students to join Ohio State.
“We used to get a huge map out and sit it on the table and decide which schools we would go to and we would map it out a year at a time so we could cover as many schools as we could,” she said.
“As we were on the road, students were saying they had no money. We wrote this gigantic proposal for 100 minority master’s fellowships. I can’t remember now what fellowships would cost back then but that programme is still in existence today. They call it the Graduate Enrichment Fellowship Programme.”
As a result “lots of students” came through the university and, for many years, Ohio State produced more African-American PhD graduates than any other school.
“The third thing we did was to publish a book called They Came and They Conquered. We wrote to the academic unit to ask them to check with the faculties [to find black student advisers]. We got one or two here, one or two there and before you knew it we had 700 names.”
Although a massive undertaking, the university made the effort because there was “a dearth of minority students” there at the time, Ms Wilson-Hill said.
“There were some departments that were ‘lily white’, as we would say back then, and we were on a mission to change that trajectory.
“Eventually, the professional colleges came on board. Initially, it was just the graduate school and then the college of law. If you understand the structure of Ohio State, it’s huge [with] over 66,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty members.
“We offer master’s degrees in 124 academic fields and the PhD in over 90 fields of study. In addition, there are the professional colleges of dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy and veterinary medicine that offer respective terminal degrees.”
Nearly 50 years later, she is proud to be able to see her efforts at work, particularly in Columbus, where the university is based.
“When these students graduate a number of them stay in the Columbus community,” Ms Wilson-Hill said.
“[Columbus Business First] talked about the great numbers, the impact my work had wherever these students go to work after their time at Ohio State.”
Her hands “were shaking” as she read the letter from publisher Nick Fortine notifying her of the award.
“I never thought of this kind of reward. My reward comes from all of the students whose lives I’ve been privileged to touch — and there are literally thousands. They write to me often, they tell me what they’re doing and it just warms my heart.”
She plans to retire this year, partly because of a promise to her mother that she would take time out for herself. Mrs Wilson died in June, “very proud” of all that her daughter had accomplished.
“My mom would have been 96 on July 18,” said Ms Wilson-Hill, who came to Bermuda at Christmas and for her mother’s birthday every year.
“When I think about my mom and my dad growing up, they always said, ‘You have to be better than good in this life’. I was the only Bermudian — and I felt this deeply — I felt like I had to represent my country.
“Even though I had been gone for years, I felt like I had to be better than good because I’m a Bermudian in the Ohio State University.”
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