During a recent trip to Detroit, Nikki Giovanni, world-renowned poet and political activist, visited Wayne State University through the King-Chavez-Parks (KCP) Initiative and met one-on-one with doctoral fellows in Wayne State’s KCP Future Faculty Fellowship Program.
Speaking to the Chronicle before those meetings took place, Giovanni, a professor of English at Virginia Tech University, said she expected the doctoral fellows would ask how she’s succeeded. Her answer: You succeed by letting people help you.
She said one of the biggest problems that Black students face is that in order to come through the inner city, they usually come through alone.
“They don’t have a crew or a gang, but in order to succeed in college you have to have a study group,” Giovanni said. “You need a group of people. We learned that from law school. The first thing you do in law school is you have a study group. And if you don’t have a study group, you’ll never get through law school.”
She said the same thing is true of undergraduates and graduate students, and that people in academia need to stress the importance of a study group.
“Law school teaches us so much,” Giovanni said, adding that it doesn’t teach the law, it teaches how to think like a lawyer. Along those same lines, she said graduate students need to think like academicians.
“We need to change how they look at themselves and their world, and I think we’re seeing that more and more youngsters are interested in an academic career, but that’s a long-term involvement,” she said. “If you decide to go for a PhD, you’re looking at another six years, and so we’re obviously going to need financial help, and a lot of encouragement. And you’re going to have to feel like the institution wants you to succeed. So we’re not only talking about the students, we’re talking about the faculty who are not used to seeing non-traditional students, which would be not White men.”
She said faculty will have to make sure they’re saying to these students “we believe in you,” because students work much better for a teacher who believes in them than one who does not.
Giovanni said students pursuing a PhD and those pursuing an MD would have a lot of debt in six years, but the MD would be more comfortable five years later. The PhD candidate, on the other hand, would still have a lot of debt.
“That’s the truth, because you have no way to make money,” she said. “So going for a PhD is not a profession so much as it is a calling. It’s something that you feel you should do because you can help in this area.”
Giovanni believes the pursuit of a PhD should thus be honored.
During her visit to Wayne State, she also met with administrators regarding ways to retain underrepresented students.
“Retention is really about letting people know that you care for them, offering the programs that are going to help,” she said. “That’s pretty much normal. Wayne State is growing, and I think Detroit is definitely on the comeback trail. And I think, as we have shown with developing, as well as developed nations, that if you can put your education institutions, from K-12, and then your college, if you can put those on track, you’re going to be successful.”
She cited Finland, which has made education a priority.
“Finland’s about the size of Detroit, but nonetheless, putting resources into education pays off,” Giovanni said.
She added that the best dollar in America is the art dollar, because it turns over so many times.
“Putting money into arts, into imagination, and then adding education, which would be facts and discipline, to it, it just has to pay off,” she said.
She also said education can be taught as a skill.
The most common misconception Giovanni hears — which she emphasized she didn’t hear at Wayne State — is that Blacks don’t want to learn.
“Where the Pacific basin students beat out everybody is that it is assumed they do want to learn,” she said, adding that they get the kind of help that makes their learning a beneficiary.
“And so we use that as a paradigm.”
She noted that people see an Asian American and immediately think “this kid is smart and wants to learn,” and approach them on that level.
“We just have to change the way we look at Black students, at Hispanic students, at Native American students,” she said.
Giovanni, who grew up in Cincinnati and is knowledgeable about Detroit, said so-called rivalries between “town and gown” can’t continue, certainly not in Detroit.
She said Wayne State has an opportunity to teach Columbia University, which sits in the heart of Harlem, how to get along with its neighbors.
While in Detroit, Giovanni also read to middle school students. She stressed the importance of young people reading, and people in general.
She’s also thrilled with electronic books, because it means books can no longer be censored.
Since Guttenberg’s printing press, there’s been a history of people censoring books, but that’s over, she pointed out.
“The right wing, and they do crazy things, and I’m not fond of them, they can go and burn what they want to burn,” she said. “But now the book can defend itself, so that’s incredibly important.”