40 years of excellence: Du Bois-Harvey Honors College at Jackson State University hits academic milestone

(JACKSON, Miss.) — The W.E.B. Du Bois-Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey Honors College is observing its 40th Anniversary at Jackson State University. Founded in 1980, the honors college has a long history of preparing students for success.

“What started at a dining room table with ideas and recruiting brochures from other schools’ honors programs and societies were honed into the DuBois-Alvarez Harvey Honors college, a program of academic excellence that set a standard for HBCUs and other academic institutions across the South,” said Rogelio V. Solis, son of founder Dr. Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey.

Dr. Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey founded the W.E.B. Du Bois Honors College at Jackson State. Born in Mexico, Harvey legally immigrated to the U.S. with her family. She later worked as a hairstylist and taught herself English before attaining a college education. Harvey’s name was added to the honors college after she passed away in February 2017. Many of her students hold her in high esteem. (Photo special to JSU)

Before retiring, Harvey spent almost 50 years as an educator at the university. She served as director of the honors college for 32 years, ending her tenure as associate dean. She died in 2017, and her name was added to the honors college in homage of her contributions. Harvey was also posthumously bestowed the professor emeritus title by Dr. Rod Paige, then interim president of JSU.

Two years ago, the Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey endowed scholarship was established with a $100,000 goal.

“What better time to raise funds and hit our mark than when we’re moving into our 40th year?” asks Dr. Loria Brown Gordon, now associate dean of the honors college. “We want to endow her scholarship so that it exists forever in her honor.”

And rightfully so, it appears. Brown-Gordon described Harvey as a woman dedicated to her students. She would act as a recruiter, calling and talking to parents about why their child should attend Jackson State. If students struggled, she would track them down and get them back on target. She would also share any concerns with parents creating an open dialogue about their child’s progress. Students thrived under her leadership, and Harvey’s son co-signs.

“My mother called the students her ‘babies’ and mentored several thousand of them, my ‘brothers and sisters,’ into becoming life-achieving adults, many with advanced degrees. And doing so on a shoe-string budget while never taking a backseat to any other schools’ programs. Her success is in the biographies of so many of those students that proudly recall being one of her babies and crediting her with pushing them to extend academically and channeling that success into their professional lives,” said Solis, a 1977 mass communication graduate of Jackson State.

Harvey epitomized the idea that hard work achieved dreams. She was born in Mexico in 1933 and lost her father early in life. She legally immigrated to El Paso, Texas, and helped support her family by working as a shampoo girl in her aunt’s beauty shop.

Later, Harvey earned a cosmetology degree and became a hairstylist. She taught herself English and passed a college entrance exam for the University of Texas at El Paso. She attained her bachelor’s and master’s from UTEP before getting a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.

She would then earn a master’s in education from JSU and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. She taught at JSU from 1967 until retirement.

While there, she established the W.E.B. Du Bois Honors College with the support of then-President John A. Peoples.

Dr. Loria Brown-Gordon is now the associate dean of the honors college. She says her goal has always been to build upon and sustain the work that founder Dr. Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey started. (Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU)

In 2012, Brown-Gordon became interim associate dean of the honors college. She previously served as special assistant to the vice president for student life/principal investigator and TRIO program director.

As a transfer student at JSU, Brown-Gordon recalls wanting to be a member of the honors college. However, at that time, there was no portal of entry for transfer students.

Building upon Harvey’s legacy, the associate dean said they increased the entry methods for joining the honors college. Previously, all students had to meet a college-prep curriculum requirement. However, Brown-Gordon said that some high schools lacked advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses.

“So, I think those students end up being penalized. What I have learned is that that has nothing to do with intellectual capacity. It has much to do with access and opportunity. And the honors college is definitely about access and opportunity,” she said.

Now, the honors college offers several paths to membership. Admitted and invited students must complete a college-prep curriculum, meet ACT/SAT requirements, and have a 3.0 or higher high school GPA.

First-year students must earn at least 30 hours, with a 3.5 GPA or higher. Transfer students must be members of Phi Theta Kappa and have maintained a minimum 3.5 GPA and have earned fewer than 60 credit hours.

For Dionvieon Morgan, a biology pre-med major, grades were a priority throughout her primary and secondary education. She was on honor rolls, deans’ lists and in talented and gifted programs throughout grades 1st-12th, she shared.

“Going into my college matriculation, I wanted to continue making my grades my priority, but I also wanted to push myself. Joining the honors college challenged me to partake in internships and take more than the average amount of classes,” the senior said.

The honors college has helped Morgan develop a professional resume and curriculum vitae. It has also pushed her to interact with the community through community service, she said.

Overall, Morgan shared, joining the honors college has prepared her for the professional sector and has shown her that going the extra mile pays off.

“We say this is leadership development,” Brown-Gordon said. “So, the different organizations we have for students like the honors council, the book club, the health club, the debate team, and the McNair Scholars program are helping students develop those skills. We are just continuing Harvey’s legacy and ensuring that it doesn’t dissipate. I think that has been the most important thing.”

Together, Harvey and Brown-Gordon worked on the Ronald E. McNair post-baccalaureate Scholars Program. The program was funded in honor of McNair, an African-American astronaut killed during the Space Shuttle Challenger’s horrific explosion. Seven people died aboard the flight, including five NASA astronauts.

Federal legislation passed in 1987 to create the program. While funding began in 1990, JSU received first-time funding of the grant in 1999, Brown-Gordon said. The McNair program helps JSU students pursue doctoral programs, among other benefits.

D’Iberville, Mississippi, native Ke’Jaun Leon-Wright said that he was apprehensive about attending college, but the honors college became his “home away from home.”

I had been hearing all the stories about college life and how it isn’t for everybody. Different stressors come with the college experience,” explained the 22-year-old. “I am the first male in my family to go, and I’m setting the foundation for my younger brothers.”

The honors college is just what senior Ke’Jaun Leon-Wright says he needed to feel at home at Jackson State University. (Photo special to JSU)

Leon-Wright said he did not expect the honors college to provide him with such a nurturing environment. “There were days that I was homesick or stressed about class, and I was able to talk to Mrs. Venetia Miller, Dr. Heard, or Dr. Gordon, and they would give me advisement, words of wisdom or set me up with tutoring. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be in that atmosphere. It was a blessing.”

Overall, the honors college serves approximately 550-plus students at the university. Students are required to participate in enrichment sessions, monthly meetings and community service.

“We receive a lot of opportunities for our students. Companies and business organizations will contact honors colleges because they want high-achieving students to take advantage of the opportunities they have,” she said. “They want students to go above and beyond, and our students are committed to going above and beyond.”

And Harvey’s “babies” have not forgotten the founding dean who went above and beyond for them.