George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck was a “gut punch” to Madison Area Technical College instructor Randall Bielby.
The video came out just as the college’s spring semester concluded, a semester that laid bare the educational inequities his students of color faced. Many were without computers or internet when the college moved classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bielby, who teaches information technology, felt compelled to help. He recently established an endowment with about $20,000 of his own money that will benefit students of color studying in his program.
An official at MATC, also known as Madison College, said Bielby’s fund is the latest in a string of scholarships for students of color that have been established in the wake of last year’s nationwide racial reckoning.
“People are seeing it as a way to impact the current situation,” said Maggie Porter Kratz, senior director of philanthropy for the college’s foundation. “Madison College had already set the building blocks in motion in helping students of color, but we are seeing more donors in recognizing that and joining that. It’s an extra push.”
Moved by a fellow college leader’s call during Floyd’s memorial for every college and university in America to create a scholarship in Floyd’s name, MATC President Jack Daniels established a George Floyd scholarship over the summer and contributed the inaugural gift, an amount college officials declined to disclose.
The scholarship led two alumni to create their own scholarship, also in Floyd’s name, Kratz said.
Another donor started a scholarship in Breonna Taylor’s name for female students of color returning to school. Taylor, a Black medical worker, was shot and killed by Louisville police officers executing a no-knock search warrant on her apartment last March.
And a recent MATC graduate created a scholarship aimed at bringing more people of color into criminal justice careers.
Funneling more resources to Wisconsin’s technical colleges could help reduce educational inequities. An education lab on UW-Madison’s campus recently examined the demographics of students enrolled in the state’s public or private colleges and universities. The Student Success Through Applied Research Lab found 61% of Native American, 55% of Black and 49% of Hispanic undergraduates in Wisconsin in 2019 attended technical college system schools, compared to 41% of white students.
In the fall of 2019, Bielby noticed a student of color struggling in his Introduction to Programming class. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 moved classes online in the spring of 2020 that he understood why.
The student didn’t have a computer or working internet at home, Bielby said. Programming is impossible on a cellphone or tablet, so any time the student needed to complete assignments, coming to campus was necessary. But the student also lacked a car, so the individual relied on the campus bus shuttle until the pandemic temporarily took it out of service.
MATC loaned laptops and WiFi hotspots to students who needed them. But the obstacles facing Bielby’s student over the past year haunted him.
“Some students don’t have the privilege to go home and do their work when they want to,” Bielby said. “When you’re completely constrained by a shuttle bus getting you to the resources you need, it’s no wonder you may not perform well as you otherwise could.”
Bielby spent 35 years as a software developer before coming to MATC in 2018. Working in IT can provide a “comfortable living,” he said, but it’s long been dominated by white men.
At MATC, about two-thirds of the roughly 190 students in the web program have been white in each of the past five years, according to data provided by Bielby. Currently, there are nine Black students in the program.
Wanting to ensure students of color many semesters from now will receive support, Bielby contributed enough to establish an endowed fund last fall. He has since then reached out to family, friends and alumni on social media.
As of early January, the fund has about $27,000, Kratz said.
The college has had more than 200 scholarship funds established by staff, faculty or retired employees, she said, though not all of those are currently active and the majority of them came from retired employees, making Bielby’s scholarship less common.
For now, one student of color each semester will be awarded the IT scholarship and receive about $500 — roughly the cost of one class, Bielby said. He said he knows it’s not a life-changing amount of money but could be the difference between a student working a full-time or part-time job while also juggling classes.
The foundation and Bielby are currently reviewing student applications and will soon decide who receives the inaugural scholarship award. Madison College’s spring semester begins Tuesday.