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Black History Month

Bowie State president recognizes she’s part of black history

She’s the first female president in the university’s 155-year history

Kevin Parrish Jr. is a junior at Bowie State University and one of six Rhoden Fellows from historically black colleges and universities participating in a yearlong internship with The Undefeated.

For Black History Month, at Bowie State University we have countless events: among them a film series on America after the Civil War, reflections on the Voting Rights Act and a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And we have a historic figure on campus, as well, with Aminta H. Breaux, the first female president in the school’s 155-year history.

The school, based in Bowie, Maryland, is a part of black history. In Maryland, there was no public education for African Americans before 1865. That year, the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People established Bowie State College, now known as Bowie State University.

“One of my roles is to ensure that people know that history — understand and value what we have brought into this country — [not just] the communities that surround us, but [also] across the country. Those who have walked this path across this university and each of our respective HBCUs,” said Breaux.

Her goal at Bowie is to graduate students with the ability to prosper in the real world. She has been the dean of students at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, the assistant provost of Drexel University, and most recently, the vice president of advancement at Millersville University. The Temple University and University of Pennsylvania alumna has more than 30 years of diverse higher education.

“Unlike other HBCUs, the first teachers at Bowie State were of African American descent,” said Sammye Miller, history professor at Bowie State. He was on the committee that hired Breaux in July 2017.

Bowie State gained a reputation early on for training African Americans who were some of the best teachers and educators in the state. The school is also unique in that it was established using money provided by Nelson Wells, a former slave.

Breaux spoke with The Undefeated about why she came to Bowie State, her aspirations there and generally about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Why are you at Bowie State?

As Maryland’s first HBCU, with that comes a rich and wonderful history of ensuring access to higher education for the disenfranchised. Today, that remains part of our mission, and I’ve fully embraced the mission of making sure that all our youth have access to higher education. I fear that some will not have access to higher education unless we continue to develop scholarships and opportunities for an affordable quality educational experience for students.

What are your aspirations for Bowie State and HBCUs generally?

For HBCUs, in general, I hope each one of my counterparts continues to let everyone across this great country know the value that our historically black colleges and universities have contributed to this country. Here at Bowie State, I hope that people see the great value we provide to our students and their families in enabling them to achieve upward mobility in this socioeconomic environment.

We need to continue to promote the historical value of Bowie State as an economic driver in this region and across the state of Maryland. While a hallmark of any HBCU, it is especially true at Bowie State. We make sure that students find their voice and are proud of their rich and unique talents, ability, and skills.

What does leadership look like for you and your students?

Leadership means that I need to be able to impart my vision, helping others see where we can go and how we can get better — and how we can fulfill our mission. But I cannot run this institution on my own; I benefit from a team of people who embrace my vision for Bowie State. They embrace the concept that we are here to ensure our students’ success. In our strategic plan, we have three top priorities: academic excellence, student success, and long-term viability of the institution. So, when I talk about ‘racing to excellence,’ it is not racing in the sense of moving quickly, but moving efficiently, effectively, and as a team working together in synchrony.

One of your school’s recent innovations is a food pantry partnership with Food Lion. Tell us about it.

With the Bowie State Nutrition Lounge, we are helping to ensure the success of our students by addressing their overall wellness, including their most basic needs. No student should ever have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. The $10,000 gift from Food Lion Feeds and the partnership with Food Lion and Capital Area Food Bank are going a long way toward ensuring that no Bowie State student goes hungry.

At Millersville, you grew the endowment from $30 million to $40 million. Can you tell me about the endowment at Bowie State?

The endowment is growing here; it is close to $9 million, but this is not nearly enough for the long-term viability of the institution. As president, I continue to convey our value and outline why private entities and other partners should invest in Bowie State. This is critical.

We spend about 4% of the endowment every year and that 4% largely goes to scholarships for students. This is not nearly enough to support the needs of students who want to come here, and then retain them and allow them to graduate in a timely fashion. Many of our students are working and some work more than 20 hours a week. Research shows that when a student is working more than 20 hours a week it impacts their academic performance and makes it less likely they will progress.

What do you want your legacy at Bowie State to be?

That’s a really good question. I would like to be remembered as someone committed to student success, who worked very, very hard each day to give it my best. And that I ensured the university would be available for many generations to come.

For me this is more than a job, it is part of who I am, it gives me a sense of purpose and motivates me to give my very best. So, I hope that future generations will look back and say, ‘Job well done. She set up the institution to be sustained for future generations.’

What is your strategy to do that?

My strategy is to build a team. I’m one person and can only do so much as a leader. I think a good leader, as my mentors taught me, ensures that people are able to bring forward their unique abilities and talents. I’m a collaborative leader and I like to hear insights from my students, as well as faculty, staff and alumni; I’m growing and I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner.

It is impossible to fully know everything, and as a leader in higher education, it is important to embrace lifelong learning, and to evolve. My students today differ greatly in their approach to life than they did almost 40 years ago when I entered into higher education. It was a different environment, most notably in terms of the internet.

Your degrees are in psychology, and you have a doctorate in counseling psychology. What type of counseling do you think Bowie State students need?

Mental health and emotional well-being are critical to student success. If a student does not feel emotionally secure and able to focus on their discipline of study, it will impede their success. We must make sure we don’t lose sight of the different elements required for student success, including emotional and mental well-being. Our student affairs division is especially focused on that.

Students today across all our campuses face new challenges. From financial challenges to various issues occurring in their communities to gun violence to so many more. As a campus, we mirror the larger society and we have to address these arising societal challenges.

What’s your message on how students can succeed?

First and foremost, I think it’s key that they arrive on campus with a mindset of being prepared. You must show up ready to learn. My father, a coach and an educator, spoke about the P’s: Poor Planning Prevents Precision Performance. So, for students, before you walk into the classroom, have you done your homework? Did you look at the day ahead or the week ahead? Know what’s on your schedule and what the assignments are. Did you do the assignments? Did you come ready to learn? Being prepared is critical.

Then you have to execute. You get in there and engage in the classroom, engage with your faculty. Research shows that students who develop a relationship with faculty are more likely to succeed as students. Faculty-student relationships are very important. If you leave this institution feeling unchanged, we did not do our work. You should feel uncomfortable at times and hear messages that you may not agree with. You should hear from somebody who has an opposing viewpoint. That is what college is about.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Kevin is a 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a junior mass communications and print journalism major from Baltimore. He's a reporter for The Spectrum student newspaper and is a big fan of the Washington Wizards.