One hundred twenty-five years ago 65 towering oak trees on an unpromising 360-acre former slave plantation in the heart of America’s South inspired the name of what would become a signally successful monument to Christian education. Oakwood University (OU) began with 16 students, a principal and three teachers, a mere 30 years after the Civil War, for the education of former slaves and their children. Through the decades, OU has prepared students both “for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.”1 In the following conversation Prudence Pollard (PP), administrator and creative leader for her school’s Healthy Campus, Healthy Community initiative (HC2020), answers questions from the Adventist Review (AR) on her school and the programs she leads.
AR Why is a woman, Ellen G. White, identified as OU’s founder? Did she discover the property or serve as its first administrator?
PP White deserves that title like no one else, because her counsel was like no one else’s, explicitly divinely guided. In a letter [no. 313] written in 1904 she declared, “It was in the providence of God that the Huntsville school farm was purchased.” And as we conduct our 125th anniversary celebration during this school year, we continue to live and serve by her inspired dictum on what true education is: “True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. . . . It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.”2
AR What’s so unique about OU? What would you say OU stands for that would otherwise be missing?
PP As a missional institution, OU sits squarely within two important traditions. Oakwood is a strong member of the family of Seventh-day Adventist education in the North American Division, and the global Seventh-day Adventist Church. But OU is also a strong member of America’s family of 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs]. So Oakwood holds the unique distinction of being the only Seventh-day Adventist HBCU—a status that provides for all of Adventist higher education a direct pipeline to the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, because of its esteemed historic status.
AR “Esteemed status,” you said? Where is that coming from? Stated a bit differently, how do you know that your school enjoys “esteemed status”?
PP U.S. News & World Report, known for its statements and analyses of rank, has consistently rated Oakwood University among top-tier, private liberal arts colleges and universities in the South, in two different categories. These are (1) “Historically Black Colleges and Universities” and (2) “Regional Colleges/South.” Our combined student body and current workforce represent more than 50 countries. We offer 60 degrees in nearly a score of academic disciplines at the baccalaureate and master’s levels, and consistently sustain an outstanding record of preparing successful applicants for graduate and/or professional schools or directly for the workforce. The school’s motto, shared by faculty and students, is “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” Consistent with its mission statement, Oakwood University’s primary business is the work of transforming lives through curricular and cocurricular learning—both for now and for eternity.
AR I believe it would be inappropriate to conduct an interview on Oakwood University without engaging you on two subjects: your Healthy Campus/Healthy Community initiative, and your food security drive. Tell me, first, about the fundamentals of your Healthy Campus/Healthy Community program.
PP Yes, Healthy Campus 2020 [HC2020] was launched in 2015 as a signature program, and I’ll speak of both its local function—on OU’s campus—and the notoriety it has garnered without our investment in any PR campaign. HC2020 integrates wholistic health education into and across curricular and cocurricular activities of the internal campus community. While being a comprehensive service and servicelearning initiative, it is also complementary to service programs of our Center for Entrepreneurship, Department of Social Work, School of Business, and Department of Education, among others. I was asked to lead a program to better understand the health of our students and campus by organizing faculty, staff, and students into a design team for the initiative.3 It took 12 months of regular meetings and research to set the goals and define the objectives and outcomes of the HC2020 initiative. Our team organized with a very specific aim—to empower students to make healthy and healthier choices. HC2020 was very targeted: the program was and is responsive to the problem of preventable diseases that affect the principal populations our university serves—both students and employees. In all, 23 initiatives help educate the campus regarding healthy lifestyle decisions, utilizing Ellen White’s eight principles of health, to foster a wholistic approach to health of mind, body, and spirit. Our students named the principles STANDOUT and developed the book STANDOUT: Eight Secrets to Unlocking Your Potential.
As for notoriety, HC2020 was loudly affirmed in 2018, when Oakwood became the first Adventist institution of higher education and the only HBCU to be awarded the prestigious Crystal Apple Award by the Partnership for a Healthier America, chaired by Mrs. Michelle Obama, former first lady of the United States. The Healthy Campus program continues today with the support of faculty, staff, and a trained Student Health Ambassadors team of 40 who promote the goals of Healthy Campus and serve as student peer educators for every incoming class of university students.
Local and national media have found OU’s health and wellness program eminently newsworthy. CBS affiliate WHNT provided local cover age of the inaugural student health fair during new student orientation.4 In November 2016 David Williams of Harvard University presented an eye-opening TED Talks article that cited OU’s HC2020 as an example of programs across the U.S. dedicated to dismantling discrimination with its deleterious effects on the well-being of African Americans.5 In 2019 WHNT interviewed university administrators on the program.
AR Is your community benefiting in any way besides seeing you on the news and hearing about you in Harvard professor lectures? Does HC2020 engage with its neighbors in the city of Huntsville, Alabama?
PP Yes, we do, and did from the start. Built into the original HC2020 proposal was also a “town and gown” community-serving side of the proposal. Phase 2 of HC2020 was planned to move health ministry beyond the borders of our campus and to take our service into our local community. We wanted to share the good news of health with those in our communities near and far.
We operationalized phase 2 in 2019 by updating the initiative’s name to Healthy Campus, Healthy Community [HC2 ]. We took specific steps by partnering with the Huntsville Hospital Health System to provide ambulatory care to underserved populations in a facility that we would build, own, and operate. On June 2, 2021, we officially opened the Oakwood University Community Health Action Center adjacent to the campus. The center encompasses an ambulatory-care clinic operated by the Huntsville Hospital. Oakwood students, employees, and community residents now have access to high-quality care at the walk-in clinic. Establishing this facility allows for continuity of care from the walk-in primary-care clinic to inpatient care at Huntsville Hospital.
At a lease-signing event in February 2021, David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System, said: “Huntsville Hospital Health System is very pleased to work with Oakwood University in bringing this dream to fruition. The clinic will provide important health services to people throughout this community.” And Dr. Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University, said, “The Community Health Action Center launches Oakwood’s community-facing phase of our nationally recognized Healthy Campus 2020 campus wellness initiative.” He particularly emphasized that the signing ceremony “underscores our Healthy Campus, Healthy Community commitment to our community.” And he expressed gratitude that Huntsville Hospital leadership was open to working with the university’s out-of-the-box idea.
President Pollard highlighted the interesting historical continuity between his school and the hospital: “Oakwood University has been in the Huntsville community for 125 years, and so has Huntsville Hospital. Together we were founded in 1896. We plan to bring health and healing for the morbidities affecting the citizens of northwest Huntsville. The partnership today between Huntsville Hospital and Oakwood University is designed to improve the health status of underserved citizens of the city of Huntsville.”
AR This is probably an appropriate juncture at which to introduce my second conversation, because of its direct impact on your neighborhood. I’m referring, of course, to your address to problems of food insecurity in the university’s environs. Please tell us more about it. Are specific areas, ages, or ethnicities involved?
PP The region of north Alabama where Oakwood resides consists of Madison, Morgan, and Limestone counties. The city of Huntsville is located in Madison County. Huntsville’s population is 215,000 according to the 2020 estimate of the United States Census Bureau. A staggering demographic detail of our community is that approximately 16.8 percent of the adult population lives below the Federal poverty line.
Oakwood’s 10,000-square-foot Community Health Action Center [CHAC] not only delivers health care on one side of our facility. The other side of our facility houses real-life service-learning activities for our students and faculty. President Pollard charged the committee to be responsive to the health needs of the on- and off-campus communities. The CHAC responds to the comorbidities of diabetes, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases and related issues such as job and income insecurities. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, Healthy Campus [now HC] responded offering testing and vaccination services to the campus and community. General services include delivery of health education, nutrition education, job skills training, and the services of our food pantry and mobile food market. Health and nutrition education presentations are augmented with a certified professional teaching kitchen, allowing attendees to receive practical health and nutrition education. Children attending our afternoon or weekend programs will have their own room with a library donated by another partner, Jack and Jill, Inc., and a STANDOUT health curriculum designed by biologist Dr. Elaine Vanterpool and me.
The goal of the Oakwood University mobile market, managed by food scientist Lisa Dalrymple and the Health Ambassadors team, is to serve low- and fixed-income residents and senior citizens by ensuring prices are affordable and by optimizing opportunities for residents who receive public assistance to purchase healthy foods provided by the mobile market.
As a highlight of the phase 2 initiative, Oakwood University’s long-awaited mobile market was officially launched February 2, 2021. This initiative is part of an effort to address food insecurity faced by many residents of north Alabama residing in food deserts, and also to combat diet-related health disparities and comorbidities that plague so many residents in the Deep South, particularly in our Huntsville communities.
AR So was all this work one long and diligent struggle to create something out of nothing, 12 months of plodding, committees, developing schemes, determining strategies, seeking the most meaningful type and area of engagement? How did you keep going? Was there some lift, some serendipitous thrill along the way, that made everybody break out into song before settling down to the grind again?
PP Well, I’d say it wasn’t all slog and grind: there were and continue to be moments of joy and punctuations of satisfaction all along. Especially when people say, “Sure, we’ll give you money for that!” One of my responsibilities is administering our grants office, providing the university with much-needed financial partners. In 2019 we submitted a grant application to Alabama’s Department of Economic Development (ADECA). Thank God, the grant was funded by ADECA to respond to “Health in the Deep South: An Effort to Combat Health Disparities and Food Deserts in the Deep South.” The ADECA-funded mobile market is designed to take fresh fruits, vegetables, and health education to underserved communities in Huntsville via a state-of-the-art, customized traveling mobile market and health education unit, and WHNT covered it too.6 So these double affirmations—grants awarded and coverage garnered— have been a repeated lift to our spirits in the midst of serious hard work. In 2020 and again in 2021 corporate partners awarded grants to fund an HC2020 Student Health Ambassadors transportation and mobile food pantry, to distribute free groceries and fresh fruits and vegetables from the Community Health Action Center to six food deserts in Huntsville, Alabama. Health education will accompany the fruits and vegetables, thanks to the generous support of groups like the Magic Johnson Foundation and our partnership with food banks and the American Heart Association. During the thanksgiving season the Student Health Ambassadors team packed holiday food baskets to feed families of four. A packing party was held at the CHAC’s food pantry and each grocery bag, valued at more than $300, was delivered to 100 families by the Student Health Ambassadors team. For Christmas we did the same, thanks to a grant from the Versacare Foundation. The food pantry operates Monday to Friday at the CHAC, and also at the six mobile market food desert locations.
February 2, 2021, the fully equipped traveling mobile market officially launched in north Huntsville, aimed at safely delivering affordable, fresh, pesticide-free, locally grown produce on a biweekly basis. It is now providing access to health care, delivering nutrition education, and making healthy, affordable foods available to several identified food deserts and underserved communities. In our 125th year of service, we say, “Praise God!”
On campus, we’re teaching youth to renew their strength; beyond campus boundaries we’re bringing bread to the hungry. Local stakeholders help us optimize the success of our community health initiative. And all of it speaks of our commitment, stronger than ever, to the mission that birthed us 125 years ago. Some of our partners share our orientation to eternity—the Southern Union and its subentities. Other strategic partners—academic, or health, or political entities—value our contribution to bettering the world we share right now. With them as much as with the world church of which we are a part, we continue in faithfulness to the dictum of our founder, divinely inspired and earlier referenced: “True education means more. . . . It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.”7
1 Words of the school’s female founder, Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903, 1952), p. 13.
3 Prudence Pollard, interviewee, is a registered dietitian and health/nutrition educator.
4 WHNT.com, “Healthy Campus 2020 Adds Wellness to Oakwood University,” Aug. 13, 2015.
5 David Williams, “How Racism Makes Us Sick,” TED Talks, November2016.
6 WHNT.com, “State to Fund University’s Mobile Farmer’s Market for Underserved Communities,” Apr. 30, 2019.
7 See note 1.
Prudence Pollard serves as the administrator and creative leader for Oakwood University’s program of Healthy Campus, Healthy Community.