For two days, I turned back the clock and lived like a freshman at Graves House, the oldest dorm on the campus of Morehouse College. It was a social experiment that allowed me to bond with a group of young men from across the world who were experiencing their first taste of independence.
I packed lightly, toting only a duffel bag and a bottle of water, so they wouldn’t think that “big brother” had arrived to snoop. The responsibility that I carried with me as president of the world’s only historically black college for men was already weighty enough, particularly on that day, with the arrival of 730 new students.
When I opened the door to my modest room, the bed had been freshly made and a black and white poster of a smiling Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. looked down from its perch as if to welcome me.
At Morehouse, young King made average grades. He was impeccably dressed, well read, had integrity and the makings of being a prodigy as a writer and speaker. His professors pushed him to build his intellect, to study and quote the philosophers, and to write and rewrite his papers until he became great.
As I looked down the hallway at the faces of the young men of Graves House, I wondered who they would become when they completed their Morehouse journey. I set an audacious goal for the Class of 2022: that 70 percent of the class would graduate on time, raising our current four-year graduation rate by 34 percentage points.
Their parents were busy preparing the nest. Mothers and fathers were hanging family photos and tucking mattress pads under new sheets until the beds had crisp hospital corners. Then, they unloaded boxes and offered last-minute advice.
My residence adviser had some advice for me: No loud noise during study hours. And no visitors allowed until October — not even if that visitor happens to be your wife of 34 years.
My presence was an oddity to my hallmates. But to their parents, I was the sprinter in the next leg of the race, and they were handing off the baton. I told each of them: “Don’t worry. We are going to take good care of your sons.”
For many of them, getting to Morehouse College had been the answer to prayers. Their sons had made it out of neighborhoods that swallow the hopes and dreams of men of color whole, leaving them impoverished, impetuous and often imprisoned. They were unscathed, despite worries about police stops and random violence.
On move-in day, while incoming students excitedly spoke of college majors, some of their peers had been silenced by gunfire in one of the bloodiest weekends of violence that Chicago had seen in years. In all, 66 people were shot, more than a dozen of them fatally, in gang wars. Some mothers had to plan funerals for their sons instead of preparing them for the next stage of life.
The young men at Graves House carry the hopes and dreams of their families and communities on their shoulders. I learned on my first night that some of them, like me, struggle at times under the weight of it all, wanting to make sure they do everything perfectly.
On my final night, I became the most popular new resident on the floor. My wife had packed a care package of snacks — oranges, candy bars, lollipops, potato chips — that I shared with 20 students in a common area. We ate comfort food at 11 p.m. and swapped stories.
I shared that Morehouse was my first choice and that I was accepted as a freshman 44 years ago, but I couldn’t afford to attend. I pledged to them that I intended to launch a capital campaign to provide more scholarship opportunities, so that deserving students could matriculate here and finish their Morehouse education.
The freshmen had questions for me, as well. They wondered how they could possibly achieve the 70 percent graduation rate I had set for them. I told them that we, as a college, will push them to work hard, and be intrusive in our advisement of their progress, but it was up to them to focus on their academics and adopt a culture of finishing on time. And, as brothers, they would have to hold each other accountable for excellence.
As president of Morehouse, I want our students to defy expectations about black men, because we have the lowest academic achievement indicators of any demographic group. We graduate at lower rates; we drop out at higher rates. We are less likely to go to — no less finish — high school, community college and college.
A 70 percent graduation rate in a population such as ours, where 95 percent of students receive financial aid, would show that our population can achieve at high levels.
After the experiment had ended and I moved out of my dorm room, I continued to carry the experience with me. Two nights living in a building constructed in the 1800s has a lasting impact when you are planning the campus of the future. It has shaped some of my recommendations to staff in executive meetings and influenced my talks with faculty.
My relationship with students is also closer now than it has ever been in my 30 years as administrator.
The Class of 2022 is striving to meet my high expectations. And I am working to fulfill my promises to them.
My first task: to get new televisions for the residence hall community rooms.
David A. Thomas is the president of Morehouse College.