Talent Development Celebrates 50 Years at URI

The Talent Development (TD) program at URI marked its 50th anniversary this academic year. Founded as a response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the program serves Rhode Island high school graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. The roots of the TD program are in the Civil Rights movement and King’s fight to overturn systemic racism and provide opportunity for all. As we go into the Spring semester and consider the legacy of Dr. King this week, it is worthwhile to learn more about this program at URI that may not directly affect graduate students, but that continues to shape the university culture.

In 1968 the state of Rhode Island, under the leadership of John Chafee and the Board of Regents, began what was then called the “Program for Disadvantaged Youth” in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. By 1969, the program had been renamed “Special Program for Talent Development” and was being run by Reverend Arthur L. Hardge, memorialized by the statue in front of the Multicultural Student Services Center and the Hardge Forum within, and Leo DiMaio. Rev. Hardge would serve as director from 1969 to 1980 and DiMaio served as assistant director until 1980 and then director until 1998.

There were some early struggles, such as when TD was almost eliminated in 1971 due to funding reasons. Rather than see TD fade away, students took over the administrative building. This also marked the beginning of a legacy of student activism within the TD Nation, which includes a take over of Taft Hall in response to the misquote of Malcolm X on the renovated library and a mediated agreement between the Brothers United for Action, the university, and the US Justice Department after a racist cartoon appeared in the Good Five Cent Cigar. Most importantly though, TD continues to see students admitted to URI who would otherwise have little access to quality post-secondary education and improvements to the program itself. Under the current director, Gerald R. Williams, the grant for TD scholars has been tied to the cost of tuition, so that there is no longer the worry that a student will have to make up the difference when tuition increases.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about the Talent Development program. For example, Talent Development is about opportunity, not race. 90% of TD Scholars are students of color, but it’s not just for students of color. It’s also not a free ride and it definitely isn’t a free pass for students who aren’t ready for college.

Graduate Teaching Assistants in English frequently encounter TD Scholars in general education courses, but despite the 50 year legacy at URI, there is often confusion about what the signature “TD Scholar” means in a student’s email signature. To recognize the continuing impact of this program and shed a bit of light, I spoke with Director Williams and Dr. Jennifer Jones, an English professor who has been working with Talent Development the last four summers.

Williams has been director of TD since the spring of 2000 and was a TD Scholar when he attended URI. What started as a nation-wide movement has come to shape discussions around equity and diversity at URI, usually spurred by the actions of the students themselves. Perhaps the most important thing Director Williams shared is that the students in TD will succeed if they are given the chance.

Scholars admitted to URI through the program have taken the required courses for college admission, but would not meet other standards, such as GPA or standardized test scores to be accepted. At URI, TD Scholars participate in an intensive six-week Summer Success Program and work closely with mentors and advisors to prepare for success at the university. The program involves taking college courses over five of those weeks before they are officially matriculated at URI. Students who successfully complete the program are enrolled for the fall semester, after which they must maintain their GPA to continue at URI and qualify for a grant that covers the cost of tuition.

Dr. Jones shared her experience of teaching in the Summer Success Program to give us more context of what working with TD is really like.

First, how did you become involved in TD?

I became involved with Talent Development through the encouragement of a colleague in the College of Business, Chet Hickox, who retired in 2016. Chet invited me to visit his summer TD classes back in 2014, which began an expansive conversation about his extraordinary work with TD students over several decades. Through Chet’s mentorship, I came to fully understand the mission and purpose of the program as well as the impact it had on students. I vowed that I would begin to teach for TD as soon as I achieved tenure, and I did so. It has been extremely gratifying work; I will always be grateful to Chet for involving me in the program.

Could you describe how a TD course compares to a 100-level course you might teach?

I teach English 110 for TD, so my TD course actually is a 100-level course adapted for a 5-week summer term. These summer sessions are rigorous and demanding; they meet four days per week for a total of 440 minutes (roughly three times as much class time and study time per week as in an ordinary semester). I teach units on poetry, the historical novel, drama, and the graphic novel, and have included texts such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and a wide array of poems ranging from William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” to Sylvia Curbelo’s “Balsero Singing.” My students hone traditional academic skills, such as with grammar & style; oral discussion; close reading of linguistic and visual texts; and the composition of critical essays. They also participate in lively formal debates centered on the relative merits of major literary characters – such as Heathcliff or Caliban; they memorize and recite poetry – such as with the class-wide recitation of the entirety of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; and they act out scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.

The director of TD, Gerald R. Williams, emphasizes that TD scholars just need the chance to succeed. How do you feel about this statement?

I agree wholeheartedly with Gerald’s assessment that TD scholars just need a chance to succeed. The emphasis for me is on the word chance. TD students typically represent the most severely under-served population of prospective freshmen from the state of Rhode Island. They attend under-resourced K-12 schools, and they grow up in moderate-to-severe poverty dealing with a wide variety of hardships attendant to socio-economic duress. I have been proud to be involved in a program that recruits students to URI who demonstrate great intellectual promise, and the emotional resiliency and drive to fulfill that promise even in the face of severe hardship. Last semester, I ran into a student at the Emporium who I had taught during my first summer with TD. He is now a mature young man and senior at URI looking forward to graduation. We both became tearful when we reminisced about the hard work we all put into that TD session back in the summer of 2015 and the profound difference it has made to our lives. As a first-generation college student myself, the opportunity to work with other first-gen students and to contribute to their ability to achieve academic and personal goals with my humanist knowledge and training has been a highlight of my career.

What is the best part of working with TD in the summer?

By far the best part of working with TD in the summer is having the privilege of working with the TD students. Unlike during the academic year when my students’ interest in and aptitude for academic work varies, in TD summer courses all students are highly motivated, gifted, and excited to learn. Obviously, with students as young as these (they matriculate to TD just weeks or sometimes days after they graduate from high school), an important part of my work is to teach them how to channel their motivation, gifts, and excitement through discipline. It is also requisite that I bring students up to speed in areas in which their K-12 education has failed them. For some students, my course is the first occasion in which they have been asked to read imaginative literature; for others, written argumentation or oral discussion have not yet been solidified into their skill set.  We find our strengths as a group, and we use that strength to overcome the weaknesses that we also find. In the process, we set down into habit ways of thinking and acting that will ensure success from the first moment of the fall semester.

Catherine Winters is a 4th year PhD candidate focusing on contemporary American narrative under the advisement of Dr. Mary Cappello.

Leave a Reply