To stay relevant in higher education, we must find newer and better ways for our students to become lifelong learners and respect the lessons that can be learned wherever they are. So we have just returned from Montgomery, Alabama, where our football team played in the Camellia Bowl.
How does one relate to the other? For many of our students who traveled to Montgomery, the main event was not the game itself but the learning experience provided by Montgomery’s city leaders and community through the many thought-provoking historical venues that our students explored in a novel public history/civil rights micro-credential study-tour.
According to city and bowl officials, we are the first university participating in their bowl festivities to bring students explicitly to learn in their museums and only secondarily to enjoy the bowl game that they are sponsoring. I want to give credit to our Department of History faculty who designed the micro-credential and to Dr. Elizabeth Bejar, Dr. Bridgette Cram, Jose Toscano and the rest of her able team in Academic & Student Affairs who designed the learning module and the subsequent credentialing that students might receive post-event. They also marketed the program, recruited the participants and managed the on-site museum/learning experiences, together with Vice President for Engagement and Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs Senior Fellow Saif Ishoof, who served as the faculty/staff curator for the Montgomery gathering.
True—maybe this was never done before in a bowl context, and I like being first at most stuff. But what really counts is the actual learning experience that our 60 students had. Consider this: They boarded a bus at FIU on Thursday at about 4:30 a.m. and arrived in Montgomery 14 hours later! Consider that most had never been in Alabama before and many never outside of Florida! Consider that they spent all of Friday in and out of Montgomery’s key museums and historical destinations including the Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Equal Justice Initiative Community Center and Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The Rosa Parks Museum is dedicated to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man in 1955. This eventually led to the 382-day bus boycott in Montgomery. While at the Museum, our students were able to engage with an array of digitally enabled immersive experiences that gave life to the public history of Rosa Parks and her fight for justice.
Next, the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor for about six years. The church is also known for its role in the civil rights movement, notably as the location where planning meetings for the Montgomery bus boycott took place. One of the most uplifting parts of the time at the church for our students was the experience of standing in unison with community docent Wanda Howard and reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Our Panthers then headed to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, located on the site of a former warehouse where blacks were enslaved in Montgomery. Students on the tour were awestruck by the museum’s assembly of facts, imagery and storytelling to convey the gravity of impact of slavery and the ghost of Jim Crow on our nation.
The next stop for our students was a combination of the Equal Justice Initiative’s community center and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. At the community center visit, our students heard from Kuntrell Jackson, who at age 14 was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Owing to the work of the public interest lawyers of the Equal Justice Initiative, Kuntrell was able to secure a change in his sentence. Kuntrell’s story set the stage for the visit to the hallowed grounds of the Memorial for Peace & Justice. As the sun began to set on the chilly December evening, our students explored a space dedicated to memorializing all of those previously anonymous names of victims of lynching across America.
Without a doubt, Friday’s tour was a time of hands-on learning. The ability to visit sites that are emblematic of social conflict, build historical narratives and develop a sense of heritage are catalysts for reflection and introspection. Sometimes you gotta breathe the air, walk the ground and just plain be there to fully absorb the magnitude of the events that you are studying. Often, the best learning experiences are lived experiences, which is why I spent so much time in Latin America during my early professional years. I found there is no substitute for face-to-face and on-ground data gathering.
The Panthers who participated in this novel Public History & Civil Rights Community Fellowship took responsibility for understanding and creating points of connection with the world around them. The students who endured the long journey on a bus to Montgomery embody the essence of the Panther spirit – they are learners and leaders who are willing to lean into those spaces, people and places that are often forgotten. Our FIU students share the ethos of the Equal Justice Initiative’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, who famously said, “We all have a responsibility to create a just society.”
A journey to Montgomery for the Camellia Bowl was not only about a made by ESPN TV bowl and the festivity of the holiday season. It was about ensuring that we are equipping our students with the skills to create meaning and build purposeful lives in a changing world around them. At FIU, we know that in the future, we might not all be students – but we all have the opportunity to continue being learners. Our time in Montgomery established that 21st century learning demands for us to work intentionally and respectfully with spaces in our communities and engage with authentic voices in the world beyond our own campus if we are to grow to where we need to be in the coming decade.
It also demonstrates the wisdom of the observation by an Indian spiritualist: “Some people look for a beautiful place. Others make a place beautiful.” In our case these past few days, the combination of gracious hosting and impactful and thoughtful museums combined with our earnest and open-minded students have made our Montgomery experience a thing of beauty. And for that we are grateful on this holiday season!
In the Panther spirit,
Mark B. Rosenberg