Russell Lowery-Hart is the president of the community college in Amarillo, a struggling city on the vast prairie of the Texas Panhandle, halfway between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. Among Amarillo College’s students are health aides, motel maids, and meatpacking workers — in plants now beset by COVID-19 — looking to education as their road out of poverty.
In the last few years, Lowery-Hart has risen to prominence on the basis of his rousing call to remake higher education to serve today’s typical college student: not an 18-year-old in a dorm but a mother with two part-time jobs and a pile of bills.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down this college of roughly 10,000 students, Lowery-Hart moved his family photos and a stack of books to a circular welcome desk in the student commons. There, he greets students who don’t have a computer or reliable internet at home. He takes their temperature, asks about possible exposure to the coronavirus, and then, if they pass the screening, allows them to use a computer lab, with social distancing and constant cleaning.
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I spoke to Lowery-Hart last week to explore what students in poverty are facing during the pandemic, and how colleges are trying to help.
Marcella Bombardieri: The Texas Panhandle has become a hotspot for the coronavirus. How is that affecting the college?
Russell Lowery-Hart: We’ve had a huge explosion of COVID in our community, through the meatpacking plants that now can’t close [according to an order from President Trump]. So there’s all kinds of politics that I don’t want to be involved in, I just care about the people that we’re trying to serve and the neighbors that we live with.
How many Amarillo College students work in the meatpacking plants?
We don’t have firm numbers. What I have are emails from students saying, “I tested positive, and I need help, because I can’t study for my tests and I can’t work.” We’re trying to provide emergency aid and academic support while we’re worrying about their health.
Why did you keep one campus building open for students to use computers and get other types of help in person?
We had to protect our employees and our students, but we knew students that needed a computer [or lacked internet service]. It was really important to me that they had access to a computer, and that COVID not take their future away from them and force them to drop classes.
What are you hearing from the students who come in?
I’ve had a lot of people, they’ve lost their job, and they’re needing to apply for college. A lot of those students [have] heartbreaking stories. They were at Amarillo College, and they got a good job. So…