This past Saturday, President Shirley Ann Jackson spoke about her experiences as a member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution; her thoughts on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the poster exhibit, “A Place for All People,” in the McNeil Room. This was part of a program hosted by the Black Student Alliance, Rensselaer Union, and the Community Advocates, which also included poetry readings, songs, an excerpt from a sermon, and a performance.
Jackson began by speaking about the history of the Smithsonian and its influence on her childhood. Having grown up in Washington, DC, the institution served as a “wonderful extension of the classroom” for Jackson, and “opened [her] eyes to the wonders of the natural world and to science.” She credited two major events for the life she has led: the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that allowed her to attend integrated schools, and the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union that sparked her interest in math and science. The Smithsonian nurtured and furthered this interest by “developing [her] empathy, imagination, and sophistication.”
Jackson has served on the Smithsonian Board of Regents since her appointment in 2005, and partook in the development, completion, and opening of the NMAAHC. Before the addition of the NMAAHC and the necessary acknowledgement of the suffering and heroism of African Americans, she viewed the Smithsonian as incomplete.
The NMAAHC is unique in many ways, such as being the only museum that did not receive full funding from Congress, which ordered that half of its funds be raised. The museum gained widespread support, raising 390 million dollars, of which only approximately 280 were needed. Nearly 700,000 people also claimed passes before the museum had even opened. That enthusiasm has continued, with passes claimed until June of 2017. Jackson then finished by showing a video of her opening remarks at the NMAAHC dedication ceremony, and took questions from the audience.
Question topics ranged from self-identity and staying motivated to Jackson’s thoughts on free tuition. She offered advice to students, saying that it is “important to know who you are, believe in yourself,” and to “not let others put a lid on you.” She also stressed the need to “find something important and pursue it,” which is what she did throughout her education. When asked about making higher education free and what Rensselaer is doing to help disadvantaged students, Jackson mentioned that financial aid has greatly expanded, and that this will likely continue, specifically through a capital campaign dedicated to this purpose. She then recollected on her own experiences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received no financial aid. Scholarships covered half of her tuition, but the other half required her father to work two jobs while she worked part-time. This was a valuable experience, but “there shouldn’t be so much of a gap” in the access to higher education.
The program closed with a performance by Dr. Ade Knowles and Roots of Africa, a student ensemble from one of his classes, and a meet and greet with Jackson.