In a record-breaking year of celebrity support and donations for HBCUs, it’s easy to forget the less glamorous, long standing support for our colleges and universities. However, in classic Denzel Washington fashion, this Academy Award winning actor and director led Hollywood is on track to fulfilling his million dollar promise to a small HBCU in Texas.
On July 7, Marshall, Texas-based Wiley College announced that the Denzel Washington Family Foundation made its fourth $100,000 contribution to the school’s debate team. This is Washington’s second million dollar commitment to Wiley and he has been giving $100,000 to the school every year for the past 15 years.
“We are grateful for the Washington family’s generosity for 15 years and counting to Wiley College’s phenomenal debate team, which, because of this support, can live out our motto to ‘Go forth Inspired,” said Dr. Herman J. Felton, Wiley president.
It’s not very often that donations are targeted at specific clubs, but Washington has taken interest in the team and used it as an opportunity to assist a generation of students.
“Supporting the next generation of brilliant minds in the art of debate at Wiley College will open so many doors of opportunity for these students during college, career, and beyond,” Washington commented.
He has supported the Wiley debate team, since he directed and starred in the 2007 film, The Great Debaters. Through the movie, he spotlighted the story of historic coach Melvin B. Tolson and the Wiley debate team’s pioneering efforts in integrating collegiate debate, specifically in the Jim Crow South.
Washington’s initial $1 million investment has allowed this small college to re-establish their legendary debate team which dissolved after Tolson left the college.
“Back in the day, in the 1930s, every HBCU had a speech and debate team but all of those teams got cut,” explained former Wiley debate coach Dr. Chris Medina Ph. D.“The biggest reason why HBCUs don’t have a speech and debate program is a lack of funding.”
Through this additional funding, Wiley has been able to grow its award-winning debate team by actively recruiting and offering scholarships to students.
“When I had started at Wiley the team only had five or six students, by the time I left there were between 30 to 40 students and they were all on scholarship,” Medina said.
For many of these students, scholarships allowed them to attend when they otherwise couldn’t.
“I really didn’t know I was going to Wiley until July, 2016,” said Wiley alumnus Jaylon Bolden. “I received a scholarship to be a part of the Denzel Washington/Melvin B. Tolson Forensics Society and the rest was history.”
While many students worried about juggling work with college life, these scholarships allowed students to develop their skills and enabled Wiley to rebuild its team.
“The scholarships are so important because to be successful in this endeavor takes a lot of time, a lot of practice, and a lot of dedication. And because of that, a lot of students who have to pay for their education don’t have the time, because they have to have jobs.” Medina said.
Wiley primarily services first generation college students and Pell Grant recipients. According to the most recent Wiley Factbook, 99 percent of first time, full time students who received financial aid were Pell Grant recipients. These students come in with a range of college readiness levels but the debate team allows all its students to grow the critical skills that prepare for life outside of Wiley.
“We have a 97 percent graduation rate,” Medina said 91 percent of the students even received scholarships to graduate school. “Every single student, regardless if they came in unprepared or not, who accepted their offer to graduate school, now has a graduate degree,” he said.
Washington’s generosity extended beyond monetary donations. The award-winning actor took the time on multiple occasions to visit Wiley and speak with the debate team.
“He came to Wiley and spent about four or five hours with us. My students were able to perform for him, we showed him what the team was doing, we were able to talk about how much of an impact his generous gifts had on the students,” Medina said. “He was so kind that he actually came to the award ceremony of the first HBCU nationals that we held at Wiley.”
Washington’s continued support is evidence that supporting HBCUs and student interests is a sound investment.
“If I didn’t have the freedom and the leverage to be able to study and engage on campus and perform across the nation with the freedom of knowing that my school was being taken care of,” Bolden said. “And I just hope that the people behind me get to have that same opportunity. Because without it I would not be in the position I am in today. So, I just thank Mr. Washington.”