When Dr. Simon Green Atkins founded The Slater Industrial School in 1892, his vision was for its students to learn traditional subjects and trades. But Atkins also wanted them to learn how to educate others so they could help spread the educational mission and uplift African American communities.
Talk about a vision coming to realization.
Slater Industrial School is now Winston-Salem State University, and 125 years after its founding you need look no further than WSSU’s website to know unequivocally that Atkins’ dreams are being realized.
Led by Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson, Winston-Salem State has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top public universities in the nation as well as one of the best historically black colleges and universities in the U.S.
And that’s just for starters. In a section titled “Points of Pride,” WSSU’s website lists nearly four dozen accolades. Among them: No. 1 in North Carolina in 2017 for graduating black students in the fields of nursing, education and health professions, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education; top ten nursing schools in the east in 2017, according to Nurse Journal; tied for the No. 1 HBCU in North Carolina in 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal; and best bang for the buck in the southeast in 2015 and 2016, according to Washington Monthly.
Other listed accomplishments include CIAA championships in football, volleyball, softball and women’s indoor track and women’s cross country during the 2015-2016 academic year; top 15 HBCUs for highest average annual salary for recent graduates in 2015, according to EDsmart; and the only four-year public university and only HBCU in the nation that offers a bachelor of science degree program in motorsports management.
There’s no question Winston-Salem State is living up to Atkins’ dreams.
“WSSU continues Dr. Atkins’ legacy by providing a supportive environment for first-generation and minority students,” Robinson says. “Our faculty is dedicated to preparing students to do more than earn a living. We provide students with high-impact learning experiences through which they have opportunities to integrate what they’re learning in the classroom into every element of their lives on campus including in their residence halls, in the dining hall, on the athletic fields, in the research labs and in the student recreation center. Every aspect of campus and community life is designed to build knowledge, cultivate talent, and mold character.”
Like the character found in Salisbury native Alisha Byrd, a first-generation student who earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Winston-Salem State in 1999 and has carried out Atkins’ vision of spreading education and uplifting the African American community through several initiatives.
One of them is Gemstones Academy and COMPASS, a non-profit organization she founded for boys and girls in grades 5 through 12 that stresses integrity, leadership, responsibility and scholarship while exposing them to community-service projects and to individuals who’ve become successful despite the odds.
Byrd says since leaving Winston-Salem State she has worked diligently to carry out her alma mater’s motto: Enter to learn. Depart to serve. She was inducted into the institution’s “40 Under 40” 2017 Class back in April. University officials cited her Gemstones Academy, her Byrd Staffing business, and the fact that she’s a member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education as reasons for her induction.
“Winston-Salem State University provided an excellent foundation through which I became rooted and grounded in serving others,” Byrd says. “I graduated from WSSU almost two decades ago, but the latter part of our motto constantly stays in the forefront of my mind, particularly when I make leadership or community decisions. I am confident Winston-Salem State University adequately prepared me to be successful while instilling in me the value of giving back. I’m very grateful and proud to be a Ram.”
Tom Flynn, assistant director of archives and special collections at Winston-Salem State, says the institution has many talented alumni like Byrd who are doing well and giving back just as Atkins hoped. He says he considers the growth of the Education and Health Sciences programs as the most visible way the university is achieving Atkins’ vision.
“Dr. Atkins looked to educate students in ways that would allow them to give back to their communities,” Flynn says. “His early efforts toward teacher education and the potential for a local hospital, briefly realized as the Slater Hospital, were continuously a part of the growth of the institution and show in the programs now available to students.
Sprawled over 117 acres
“The university continued to grow from an Industrial Academy to a Teachers College to a State College and today, a State University adding more educational options for students to grow in the classroom, as people and to interact and outreach with the community,” Flynn continues. “The consistent desire to provide opportunities to students is one started by Dr. Atkins and continued today by Chancellor Robinson, the university administration, the faculty and staff, alumni and the supporting community both locally and nationally.”
Sprawled over 117 acres, Winston-Salem State has more than 5,100 students, half of whom are first generation, and more than 310 faculty members. The institution’s student-faculty ratio is 14 to 1.
Mention WSSU’s mascot – the Rams – and it immediately conjures up memories of legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, an all American standout at WSSU who is in the NBA Hall of Fame.
Because it sometimes gets overshadowed by much-larger North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, it’s likely many prospective students overlook Winston-Salem State and all that it has to offer.
“Beyond being a warm and welcoming place where faculty and staff take a personal interest in students’ success, I believe that one of the most important components of a WSSU education is that we help students and their families gain social mobility through educational achievement,” Robinson says. “WSSU is recognized as a social mobility innovator. We help students of all economic backgrounds realize the significant economic opportunities a college degree can provide. For three straight years, WSSU has been ranked among the top twenty in the nation on the Social Mobility Index – one of our proudest accomplishments.”
Dr. Peggy Valentine, dean of the School of Health Sciences, is proud of the difference Winston-Salem State is making with respect to healthcare.
“Over 7,000 low-income residents who are uninsured and underinsured have been served by students and faculty over the past seven years,” she says. “The school partners with local businesses, churches, for-profit and non-profit organizations, housing projects and other community organizations to provide wellness services. Among ways WSSU partners with area businesses to find solutions for health equity are student-run clinics that provide physical therapy and occupational therapy services for low-income minority residents in East Winston.
“Similarly, all students hone their professional skills by providing free wellness services to residents of East Winston via the Rams Know H.O.W. (hands on wellness) unit donated by Novant Health,” she continues. “When Simon Green Atkins moved to Winston-Salem to establish the university in 1892, he noted that African Americans lived in a congested area which impacted health outcomes. He supported community development in East Winston, and I believe he would be proud of the School of Health Sciences’ accomplishments in serving the East Winston community by offering free clinics and mobile unit wellness services to local residents.”
Health Sciences has more than 500 clinical affiliates where students gain hands-on experience. In addition, Valentine says, WSSU has taken a leadership role statewide as co-founders of the North Carolina Alliance for Health Professions Diversity.
‘our shared humanity’
It should come as no surprise that Robinson is the driving force behind ensuring WSSU continues Atkins’ legacy. In 2016 he was recognized as one of the most influential people in the Triad.
“Dr. Atkins believed in social justice as a means to ensure equity for all citizens of North Carolina and the United States as a whole,” Robinson says. “I, like Dr. Atkins, believe in our shared humanity and the rights for equitable treatment for all. I believe so strongly in social justice and community engagement that we made it one of the five goals of our strategic plan. WSSU is a leader in addressing complex issues such as community sustainability, health equity, educational access and community empowerment. The tenets of social justice and community service are woven into our curriculum and into the students’ experience.”
A statue of Atkins is in the center of campus, just in front of the library on the pedestrian mall. Installed in 2005, it was created by artist Elizabeth Heath King, a Twin City native. Additionally, some campus buildings bear his name, including the S.G. Atkins House, which he built in 1893 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and Atkins Hall, a six-story residence hall. Additionally, the campus has a building named for his wife, Oleona, and his son, Francis.
Atkins’ story and that of the foundation of the university are told at commencement and during other campus events, though Founder’s Day is the only campus ceremony devoted specifically to the school’s founder. Each fall new students walk through the stone arches, which were dedicated to Atkins and his wife by the class of 1936.
So as Winston-Salem State celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Robinson says he’s convinced the university is headed in the right direction and embarking on a path that would make Atkins proud.
“Dr. Atkins founded the university to ‘educate people for service rather than for success,’” Robinson says. “Last year, our undergraduates engaged in a collective total of 29,000 volunteer and community service hours. They understand the importance of giving back to the community and using the knowledge that they gain to improve the quality of life in Winston-Salem. WSSU’s future is incredibly bright,” Robinson adds. “We are on a trajectory to transform higher education.”