Author: Jessie Holmes
As Bennett College enters its 150th year, it can add yet another major event to its long history: surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. Located in the heart of Greensboro, this historically black women’s college is anchored by a chapel where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke, and its students – known as Bennett Belles – have played integral roles in social justice movements dating back to the 1930s.
“Bennett College has a strong herstory. I don't like saying history, but her story,” says Kayla Isaac, senior class president. “These women that have walked this campus have been the first physicians in some of their hometowns, the first educators, the first politicians.”
But COVID-19 presented an especially unique and multi-faceted challenge for the Belles.
“When the pandemic first hit in March of 2020, we had to vacate campus,” says Suzanne Walsh, Bennett College president. “We spent that entire next academic year virtual.”
Bennett College Protects Its Mission
Closing residence halls protected student health, which was Walsh’s biggest concern, but housing was an important revenue source. There was also the added cost of personal protective equipment and facilitating online-only classes. Emergency funds from the federal CARES Act addressed some of the college’s immediate concerns. But as the pandemic continued it was the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that better positioned the college for the future. North Carolina used its ARPA funds to award Bennett College $1.58 million, alongside several other private, non-profit institutions.
“We didn't have to make tough tradeoffs because we were allowed to use these funds to fill in really important gaps,” says Walsh. “Like deferred maintenance, because ultimately when students come back, we needed to have a healthy environment for them.”
As a self-declared microcollege and one of the only all-women’s HBCUs in the nation, Bennett plays an important role in social mobility, for which it was ranked No.1 by U.S. News and World Report in 2022. The stability granted by ARPA funds allows Bennett to continue its mission without compromise, helping as many students as possible.
“They’re on a different socioeconomic trajectory than they would have been had they not come to Bennett,” says Walsh. “I think this just speaks to the importance of HBCUs and our contributions to the economy and people’s lives in really making a difference.”
Livingstone College Invests in Financial Aid
Student success was also Livingstone College’s top priority when using its American Rescue Plan funds. Credited as the birthplace of black college football, Livingstone’s Salisbury campus is also the final resting place of its founder Dr. Joseph Charles Price. Students and faculty decorate his mausoleum with a new wreath every February 10th on Founder’s Day. True to his vision, Livingstone College aims to transform lives through the power of education.
“We serve a particular niche in the marketplace,” says Dr. Anthony Davis, Livingstone’s president. “We are critical to the educational and economic ecosystem in North Carolina.”
Livingstone College received $6.6 million and is putting most of those funds directly towards financial aid. Dr. Davis says even before the pandemic, most of Livingstone’s students qualified for financial aid and the investment will pay dividends for families and the state.
“If you're looking for top talent that happens to be diverse, HBCUs have to be in your engagement set,” says Dr. Davis. “We have students who are ready to move into careers all over the state and we are making sure that we don't leave any segment of our population behind.”
Student Lives Transformed
One of the students to receive that financial aid is freshman Ben Coates, a culinary arts major who hopes to open his own barbeque restaurant someday. He chose Livingstone for its history and culture, and for the assistance it offered in paying for his education.
“I feel like the future is definitely looking brighter for me,” says Coates. “It's looking up, it's giving me another chance and the opportunity for me to do something with my life.”
Back at Bennett College, Isaac is also looking to the future as she applies to graduate schools. She wants to use her biology degree to one day obtain her master’s in public health and open a health center for underrepresented communities. Her success will no doubt inspire many more Belles, like the women who came before her.
“It's the beauty of knowing that I'm able to do it,” says Isaac. “I am strong enough to do it because they did it and they paved the way for me to do it.”