“We’re going to have a little bit of church in here tonight, all right?”
The auditorium of the MUSC Drug Discovery Building reverberated with a joyful noise Tuesday evening as singers from five Tri-county colleges and universities came together as one choir – the Black History Intercollegiate Consortium district choir – leading the audience in song as representatives from each institution assembled for the 30th annual MLK celebration.
Recent Charleston Southern University graduate Chelsea Green led the combined choir in a kinetic performance that had the audience on its feet. But the choir was just one part of the evening, labeled “The Dream in 2020: Conviction in our Purpose, Clarity in our Mission, Resilient in our Progress.”
Every year the consortium comes together to honor individuals from each institution who promote diversity and inclusion. This year, the consortium also honored its founding members and the trailblazers who created the sturdy foundation that has allowed the consortium to continue through three decades.
This year’s MUSC honoree was Pearl M. Givens, student services coordinator for the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine Office of Diversity.
In that role, she travels the state speaking to college and high school students, particularly those from underrepresented minority communities, about dentistry as a career. She works with the local chapter of the Student National Dental Association, which provides oral hygiene education outreach and works to increase access to care in underserved communities. As part of outreach, she helps coordinate the annual Dental Day, in which undergraduates can come to campus to meet faculty, current students and admissions counselors.
“This year alone she coordinated – by herself by the way – with 120 predental students to introduce them to our dental program here,” said Mirna Rezkalla, a fourth-year dental student and president of SNDA.
“Her warm and friendly demeanor, charming manner and gentle spirit are apparent in every action and word, making her beloved by all who interact with her,” Rezkalla wrote in her nomination letter.
Givens, who prior to her current role served as the director of financial aid at MUSC, told the audience she was grateful and honored to have been selected. She thanked College of Dental Medicine Dean Sarandeep Huja, D.D.S., Ph.D., Vice Dean Tariq Javed, D.M.D., and Gwendolyn Brown, D.M.D., director of diversity, as well as her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, many of whom came to the event to support her.
“We do what we do for the love of our students,” she said.
As an event honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many of King’s famous quotations were repeated by speakers. But third-year College of Medicine student Alexandra Rice, vice president for diversity and inclusion for the MUSC Student Government Association, cautioned against letting a whitewashed version of King become his memory.
“Many would rather Dr. King exist as a comforting figure of mythic proportions – a fairytale hero who came to set us at ease about injustice, which has supposedly been eradicated, rather than a complex historical actor whose intent was to challenge each of us to destroy injustice,” she said.
Too often, people learn in school about the “hopeful” King but not the “corrective” King, she said, the King who decried racism, militarism and economic exploitation.
“Dr. King’s message is not an easy one to swallow. It convicts, calls to action and at times asks us to put ourselves in harm’s way as we attempt to bend, to use his phrase, the long moral arc of the universe further toward justice. Dr. King reminds us that we bear the responsibility for bending it,” Rice said.
It’s not that his hopeful messages of love and unity are untrue, she said – it’s that without his messages of conviction and accountability, the unity is empty.
As host institution, MUSC was also able to award the annual BHIC scholarship. This year’s recipient is Melanie Wiley, who is enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program and studying autism.
Wiley shared that she had been discouraged from pursuing a career as a physician-scientist by people who saw only that she was a woman, a minority and a person with a disability. But her mother gave her the conviction to continue her education.
“Now my goal is to show people that life challenges do not have to limit their dream. A person’s gender, ethnicity, disability, their age, income, who they love, shouldn’t have to limit their aspirations,” she said.
Additional MLK Award recipients
Vincent Ashby Jr., Trident Technical College
Dondi Costin, Ph.D., Charleston Southern University
James Lewis Jr., Charleston City Council, from The Citadel
Kenyatta Grimmage, College of Charleston
Co-founders In Memoriam
Bob Gillis, College of Charleston
Lee Martin, The Citadel
Earl B. Higgins, Ed.D., MUSC
Angie Anderson, MUSC
Johnnie Keyes, Charleston Southern University
Lottie Otto, Trident Technical College
Clara Hodges, College of Charleston
Lucille Skaggs, MUSC