Time for a change
HBCU grants bring tech-focused programs to Norfolk State
As someone who believes strongly in change, Javaune Adams-Gaston assumed the presidency of Norfolk State University at a pivotal time for both the nation and historically Black colleges and universities.
“2020 really was an eye-opening experience for many in our nation — particularly with some of the disparities that existed that came to light through COVID,” says Adams-Gaston, who became NSU’s seventh president in June 2019. “The health disparities and then inequities that exist in [health] care really came to light, and that came at a time when also the social injustice issues came to light.”
Adams-Gaston’s first year as president saw not only the coronavirus pandemic but also widespread racial justice protests that sparked discussions about equality and equity that reached from protest marches to government bodies, corporate boardrooms and universities.
Established in 1935, NSU is one of several HBCUs that received increased attention and financial support following the 2020 protests.
Fortune 500 corporations such as Dominion Energy Inc., IBM, Microsoft Corp., Apple and Netflix made major gifts and grants to HBCUs in 2020 and forged new partnerships with the majority-Black educational institutions, including NSU.
In December 2020, NSU received its largest-ever donation — a $40 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos. Scott donated nearly $6 billion to various nonprofits and educational institutions, including HBCUs and community development organizations, last year. The NSU gift will support scholarships as well as workforce and economic development activities.
This year, NSU will use these partnerships and grants garnered in 2020 to enhance the university’s technological capabilities and academics — as well as place a spotlight on the school’s pipeline of students for jobs in Virginia’s in-demand sectors. “We’re excited for the respect and the understanding and the primacy of HBCUs in getting us to a place in this country where we’re able to provide access and affordability and a future for all students,” Adams-Gaston says.
Taking a byte out of tech
In 2020, one of the most consequential presidential elections in modern history bumped into an unprecedented pandemic, resulting in record early voter turnout. With an eye on the 2024 election, political scientists have questioned whether in-person early voting will continue to be a trend. NSU, however, is at the forefront of what future elections may look like.
With assistance from a $200,000 Microsoft Impact Grant awarded in fall 2020, NSU faculty and students during the next couple of years will work to develop a potential voting app for mobile phones. To get there, though, will require faculty training, development and testing.
The Microsoft Impact Grant funding will go toward training faculty on the latest software systems from Microsoft and other companies. Professors will bring that knowledge back to the classroom to share with students to have them “Day One ready” to work on the project.
“One of the challenges that our students will have is exposure,” says Aurelia T. Williams, executive director of NSU’s Cybersecurity Complex and interim vice provost for academic administration. “Now that we have all of these additional academic partnerships … our students will be exposed to many more opportunities [in tech].”
Even more opportunities will result from a partnership with tech giant IBM that also came to fruition during the fall 2020 semester. The twofold partnership (worth an estimated $6 million) includes access to IBM Global University Programs, an academic initiative for faculty and students, as well as IBM Skills Academy, which will provide training to NSU faculty on topics including artificial intelligence, blockchain, cybersecurity, data science, cloud computing and quantum computing.
“These grants don’t just come by magic,” Adams-Gaston says. “We have rock star groups of faculty and administrators who really get the job done and who really work to help ensure we have these opportunities.”
The IBM Global University Program will offer unlimited access to IBM course materials, tutorials and lectures to faculty and students from NSU and 17 other HBCUs. Another benefit of NSU’s ongoing partnership with IBM is developing a pipeline for internships and career opportunities. Michael Keeve, dean of NSU’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, stays in touch with IBM representatives who send out communications regarding job and internship opportunities for NSU students.
“It prepares students for the workforce,” Keeve says. “And it definitely enhances our faculty training, keeping our faculty informed … in terms of what is going on in the workforce.”
A continued partnership with the Sandia National Laboratories also keeps computer science and engineering students apprised of workforce opportunities through a research consortium between the U.S. Department of Energy and HBCUs, which NSU has been involved with since 2015.
“The whole preface of that consortium was that the energy laboratories have diversity issues — and that’s not unknown,” says Williams. “This particular consortium was established to increase the cybersecurity workforce for development pipelines, particularly to the energy laboratories.”
The goal of the consortium is to align NSU’s research with Sandia National Laboratories research so that faculty and students can contribute to national research. Williams and other faculty members receive listings of available research projects from Sandia and connect students interested in participating.
“That becomes a win-win situation because students now have the opportunity to work on research that is important to the federal government [and] receive advice from professionals who are working specifically in the field,” Williams says. “It also presents the opportunity for NSU to work on intellectual property that can really change our research platform.”
For additional workforce preparation this spring semester, up to 130 NSU students and alumni are participating in three online tech boot camps hosted by media streaming giant Netflix. The courses for the 16-week program will focus on Java engineering, UX/UI design and data science. NSU alumnus Michael Chase, a Netflix software engineer, is serving as a mentor to students in the program.
“Mr. Chase’s vision is for graduates from his alma mater to be career-ready with cutting-edge knowledge and skills,” NSU Computer Science Department Chair Claude Turner said in an October 2020 announcement about the Netflix partnership.
Additionally, the university in December 2020 announced a collaboration with Apple Inc.’s Community Education Initiative and Tennessee State University’s HBCU C2 (Coding & Creativity) initiative, through which faculty will learn about coding and app development using the Swift programming language.
“These exclusive programs … will help students gain market skills to build their professional portfolio,” says Adams-Gaston.
A boost for success
While STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs have been an educational focus in recent years due to an increasingly urgent need for tech workers in Virginia, NSU still takes pride in its STEAM approach — one that includes the arts.
“The whole notion of STEAM is that all of the disciplines that we have here are … focused on, ‘How do we solve the problems of the world and how do we serve the communities that we’re a part of?’” explains Adams-Gaston.
One prime example of a STEAM-oriented donation was a $2.7 million gift from Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc. awarded in fall 2020 that will support the university’s STEM disciplines; fund a grant for students who have exhausted their financial aid; and support research, public policy development and a lecture series through the University’s Center for African American Public Policy.
Established in 2019, the Center for African American Public Policy is the university’s in-house think tank. It conducts and disseminates research and also hosts town halls and seminars. In October 2020 it partnered with the Virginia Bar Association to host a debate between incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and his unsuccessful Republican challenger, Daniel Gade.
A $200,000 United Services Automobile Association (USAA) grant awarded in fall 2020 to NSU’s Center for African American Public Policy will help students engage in economics, housing, health, environment, criminal justice, energy and transportation research for African American communities.
In January, 20 students who applied for the USAA grant (donated in November 2020) were selected to receive scholarships and will work with a faculty mentor on a one-year research project, independent from the USAA. NSU’s grant was a part of a USAA initiative to donate $50 million to nonprofit organizations furthering social equity.
“In other words, [the grant] provides an opportunity for individuals to achieve education, thereby improving their life … [and improving] their standing in society,” says Eric W. Claville, director of the Center for African American Public Policy.
And one of the most famous people to hail from Hampton Roads, popular musician Pharrell Williams, whom Adams-Gaston refers to as a “good friend of HBCUs and NSU,” launched his nonprofit Black Ambition initiative in December 2020. Open to all Black and Hispanic HBCU students and alums, it provides students experiential learning opportunities necessary to launch their own tech, design, health care and consumer products/services startups.
Calling it a “game changer” for HBCU students, Adams-Gaston is encouraging NSU students and alumni to participate in the entrepreneurship-focused program. She touts the benefits of corporate mentorship from the program’s partners, which include Adidas, Chanel, The Rockefeller Foundation and the VISA Foundation.
“With Black Ambition, the goal is to help strengthen the pipeline of talented entrepreneurs and close the opportunity and wealth gaps derived from limited access to capital and resources,” Williams said in a December 2020 statement.
HBCU student and alumni teams, including those from NSU that will form in the coming months, have the chance at competing in July 2021 for a $250,000 prize to help launch their own company. Teams must include at least one current HBCU undergraduate or graduate student, one recent alum or one former student within two years of attending the institution.
Despite a year ripe with STEM- and entrepreneurship-focused initiatives, NSU also still has a sharp focus on its tried-and-true programs such as nursing, social work, the fine arts and the humanities.
“We’re not just focused on tech advancement … we’re really looking at this holistically,” Adams-Gaston says of 2021 plans. “We look at … the ways in which we can develop programming and opportunities. We have so many other pieces that are coming to fruition.”
Norfolk State at a glance
Norfolk State University, established in 1935, was originally the Norfolk Unit of Virginia State University and became fully independent in 1969. Ten years later, it obtained university status and today operates as a historically Black college or university (HBCU).
A 55-acre portion of NSU’s 134-acre campus was once Memorial Park Golf Course, located near downtown Norfolk. Today the campus includes the McDemmond Center for Applied Research, the three-story G.W.C. Brown Memorial Hall academic building and nearly 30 other buildings.
In-state: 4,092 (75%)
International: 50 (1%)
Minority: 4,792 (88%)
Tuition and fees**
In-state tuition and fees: $5,752
Tuition and fees (out of state): $17,680
Room and board and other fees: $3,870
(education and general fees),
$10,844 (room and board)
Average financial aid awarded to full-time,
in-state freshmen seeking assistance***
*As of fall 2019 **For 2020-2021 academic year
***For 2018-2019 academic year