'Unfastening the gates:' Drake University's Bright College prioritizes diverse students

The John Dee Bright College recently opened at Drake University in Des Moines.

Abena Imhotep grew up on 13th Street and Mondamin Avenue in Des Moines – a mile and a half away from Drake University. A 30-minute walk separated her modest neighborhood from the vaunted university founded in 1881.

“It was like the parameters of the hood. Drake was on the other side of the hood. That was the boundary,” she said. “When you got to 24th, 25th, then you were no longer in the hood because of Drake, and so it seemed like it was just not a place where we belonged.”

Drake’s new John Dee Bright College, offering a two-year associate’s degree with guaranteed admission to Drake’s bachelor’s degree programs, aims to change that perception and the lives of its inaugural cohort of 28 students, including Imhotep, 44, a business owner and 2018 lieutenant governor candidate for the Libertarian party.

Bright College student Abena Imhotep watches as her professors discuss an essay, while classmate DeShana Taylor takes notes. Photo by Black Iowa News.

When Imhotep, who gave a TEDx Des Moines talk last year, first heard that Bright College would challenge typical recruitment methods, upend antiquated ideas about model students and revamp college financing to recruit a diverse student body to work collaboratively, excitement overtook her.

“I said are you kidding me? I just cannot believe it – that now a place that I drove by my whole life or walked past my whole life is actually available and accessible to me,” she said. “I was like sign me up. Where do I do this?”

The college is named after John Dee Bright, a Black 1952 Drake graduate, who holds 20 records in three varsity sports, said Dean Craig Owens. Bright was viciously attacked during a football game in 1951, which sparked national outrage and raised awareness about the racism felt by Black athletes. Bright was poised to become the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles’ first Black player, but he moved to Canada instead, played football professionally and worked as a teacher, coach and school administrator, according to Drake. He died in 1983.

“This is a way for us to reclaim that part of his legacy,” said Owens. “This is a college named for Johnny Bright’s dedication, not just to grit and determination and drive on the football field, but to the way those values informed his dedication to education.”

Drake recently announced a $225 million fundraising campaign, The Ones: Drake’s Campaign for the Brave & Bold, that helps fund Bright College and several other initiatives.

“Bright College is a powerful example of our commitment to expand the reach and impact of our institution,” said Drake President Marty Martin, in the university's announcement. “A focus for this campaign is to find new ways to deliver a Drake education and the opportunities it fosters to more learners under the banner of ‘University for All.’”

Drake’s Bright journey

Bright is in Drake's newly renovated Meredith Hall in the center of the university's 150-acre campus. Drake began exploring the feasibility of a two-year college in earnest in 2019, said Owens who helped mold the college, along with professors Megan Brown and Debra DeLaet. Students of color make up 2/3 of the student body, which spans five generations, he said.

“There are students in the Des Moines metro area who have all of the ability, the talent and the intelligence, the smarts, the creativity to do well at a college like Drake,” he said. “But who for one reason or another might have gotten the impression that going to college, or going to Drake wasn’t necessarily the next step in their life journeys.”

(From left, Bright College Professors Debra DeLaet and Megan Brown). Photo by Black Iowa News.

  • Bright has a faculty student ratio of 1-15, said Owens.
  • Writing tutors and other supports are embedded in the classroom.
  • Tuition at Bright is $18,500 annually, and most students will receive financial aid and institutional aid and leave Bright with little debt, Owens said. Drake’s tuition is about $45,734 annually.
  • SAT and ACT scores are not used, he said. Instead, students submit essays and other examples of their talents.

Brown said a team of faculty had “lively discussions” about their values as educators and the current state of education as they discussed Bright’s formation. Early proposals for Bright mentioned “underserved” students – a label that points to “institutional issues, rather than personal individual deficits,” Brown said.

“But there’s still a common misconception in this country that underserved students will always automatically be less capable than students from better-supported schools and communities,” Brown said.

Bright will help provide a “robust local talent pipeline” for organizations, enterprises and employers,” Owens said. That pipeline will include Bright students who will be ready to hit the ground running, serve as leaders and be effective team members who are adept at working collaboratively and in diverse environments, he said.

Bright is “in keeping with Drake’s recommitment to being an integral servant to this community as a whole,” he said. Such initiatives include the Gregory and Suzie Glazer Burt Boys and Girls Club located on campus and the Tom and Ruth Harkin Center, among other revitalization efforts, he said.

Bright students take three hour classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All students take the same sequence of courses together, he said. Founders wanted to make sure working students could fit the courses around their work schedules and others could navigate family obligations.

“Often what we do in higher education is we think of the model student as the usually white middle class 18-year-old who has been told from the time the doctor cut the umbilical cord, you're going to college, you're going to college, you're going to college, and who has learned to think of two or four years of college after high school as their full-time occupation,” he said.

Bright is reimagining higher education, he said.

“Too often I think people make unfounded assumptions about presumed learning deficits among students rather than focusing on the socio-economic barriers that can impede student learning,” DeLaet said. “I want everyone to focus on the capabilities of all of our students.”

Brown and DeLaet collaborated on the course syllabus, which prioritized writing, critical thinking skills, historical foundations, global and cultural understanding and equity and inclusion.

“I think that expanding access to higher education is an important step to fulfilling education as a human right," DeLaet said. “The approach to Bright is distinctive.”

Student quickly exceeded their hopes.

“One thing that has surprised me is the incredible confidence and high levels of engagement that the students bring to class,” DeLaet said.

Those attributes have contributed to making the classroom a vibrant and constructive space, she said.

Brown, who wanted to work at Bright to support its "critically important mission" to improve access to higher education, agreed. Most first-year college students may feel homesick and have difficulty letting their guard down, she said. Not Bright students. Students and faculty quickly bonded.

During a class this fall, DeShana Taylor, 45, who works full-time and wants to become a lawyer, praised the course modules, which all emphasize racial justice.

“I am actually really happy and excited about the emphasis on racial justice and human rights,” Taylor said. “The course is so very timely, especially in lieu of House File 802, which is problematic. It basically gives the state permission to whitewash history.”

Banner photo: (Top) Bright College students Kat Fortin, 17, and Abena Imhotep, 44, pose next to a poster of John Dee Bright, for whom the college at Drake University is named. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Coming Tomorrow: Part 2: 'Unfastening the Gates' – Bright College students in the classroom.

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