One of the smallest historically black colleges in the U.S. boasts a huge accomplishment: pound for pound, tiny Dillard University in New Orleans graduates more physics majors — and, notably, more female physics majors — than far bigger schools with more resources.
With an enrollment of 1,200, Dillard ranks second in the country in black physics undergrads.
The point was punctuated at Dillard’s recent commencement exercises, which featured a keynote address from actress and singer Janelle Monae, one of the stars of “Hidden Figures.” The award-winning film tells the story of the black women scientists who fought Jim Crow while doing essential mathematical calculations for America’s space program.
“To see that we have this significant number of women representing (science and math) in the way that they are is a blessing to America and our future,” Monae told The Associated Press in an interview before the May 13 graduation. “To have physicists coming out of New Orleans who are African-American women … that’s a huge deal.”
Nine of the top 10 physics departments in the country — at black or white schools — producing the most African American undergraduates in physics are at HBCUs, according to the American Institute of Physics. Currently, the top producing school is Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU with nearly twice as many students as Dillard.
Dillard, the smallest on the list, ranked comparably with North Carolina A&T University, with more than 10,000 students. The private, liberal arts college has conferred 33 physics degrees since 2007, including nine to black women.
Degrees in physics are rare for women and minorities. That Dillard — with a campus that is 73 percent female — is outpacing its larger counterparts is significant, said University of Pennsylvania higher education professor Marybeth Gasman.
“They’re taking a chance on these young women,” said Gasman, director of Penn’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions and author of a forthcoming book on HBCUs and STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education. “They don’t bring in people who they deem to be perfect. They bring people in who they deem to have potential and they work with them to discover this talent.”
Dillard President Walter Kimbrough is one of the biggest champions of the school’s physics program.
“I’d never met a black female getting an undergraduate degree in physics in my life until I got to Dillard,” Kimbrough said. “It broadens the narrative of what black women do.”
Dillard’s powerhouse program is the work of physics professor Abdalla Darwish, who frames his efforts to steer black women into the major as “a movement.”
“I believe in women, especially minority women,” said Darwish, who arrived in 1998 and has built a multi-million dollar laser lab for research. “They are not less than anybody else. Just give them the chance and they will be the best. Give them what they need, and they will do.”
Founded in 1869, Dillard is best known for its nursing program, the oldest in the state. Physics was established as a major at Dillard in 1940.
“You had those areas where we’ve traditionally expected women: teachers and nurses,” Kimbrough said. “Now, we’re going to be known as one of the best in physics. When I go out and talk about Dillard, it’s a ‘wow’ factor for us.”
Trivia Frazier loved math from a young age, but in high school, she gravitated to science out of a curiosity for why things happen.
“When I saw you could put an equation to something to describe it in a quantitative way, that’s what really drew me to this field,” Frazier said.
She was the only person in her graduating high school class to pursue physics in college. She chose Dillard because of its eager, approachable recruiters — including Darwish, who talked to her about post-graduate studies.
She went from being the only black girl in her school interested in physics, to having three “sisters in physics” at Dillard.
“We were able to support each other and understand the quirks about being a physicist and not having the most popular major,” Frazier said. “That was one of the most important components of my foundation.”
As an undergraduate, Frazier wondered what she would do with a physics degree, and considered adding mathematics to her major. Darwish was firm: A black woman in physics was special, he said.
“He told me, ‘It’s time for you to learn about the significance of where you are and who you can be,’” she recalled. “That conversation helped me to stay on track. It opened up my eyes in terms of understanding what was out there.”
Darwish introduced her to other physicists. Frazier graduated with a degree in physics and pre-engineering in 2007 and went on to earn her doctorate in biomedical engineering in 2008 from Tulane University. She works at a bio innovation center in New Orleans as a tissue engineer, and returns to her alma mater frequently to inspire the next generation.
“Now, it’s a part of my mission to let other young women know that this is possible,” she said. “When you’re aware of the opportunity, the future is just … it’s yours.”