Spelman leaders seek to create a more well-rounded student experience

It is busier and noisier on Spelman College’s campus these days.

As a group of students, dressed in all black, tried to find solace in tai chi on the yard on a recent Wednesday, a construction crew was nearby working on Spelman’s new “front porch” on the edge of campus.

Construction continues on the Spelman College Mary Schmidt Campbell Center for Innovation & the Arts on Wednesday April 19, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

When its 84,000-square-foot Mary Schmidt Campbell Center for Innovation & the Arts opens in 2025, it will be the first new building on campus since the wellness center opened in 2013.

The center under construction is one of several changes being discussed or in the works, signaling a new direction for the historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, which ceremonially installed Dr. Helene Gayle as its 11th president Friday.

A proposed housing plan would add air conditioning to two existing dormitories while tearing down two others to replace them with a new state-of-the-art dormitory. The move would allow Spelman to house about 85% of its student body, up from about 70%. Spelman, which has roughly 2,400 students, has seen a slight increase in its enrollment in recent years.

Views of Howard-Harreld Hall, one of two dorms on the campus of Spelman College, that have been proposed to be razed in the coming years. April 19, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Additionally, the nearly 60-year-old John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts building is being renovated thanks in part to a $5 million donation from alumna LaTanya Richardson Jackson and her husband, actor Samuel L. Jackson.

“I’ve been at Spelman for 25 years, and we have never had this many simultaneous projects going on at the same time,” said Spelman Chief Financial Officer Dawn Alston.

The changes include more than construction.

As a result of Gayle’s year-long listening tour, the school will soon focus on food and fitness.

Spelman College President Dr. Helene Gayle speaks during the dedication of the Lee Family Admissions Office at Spelman College on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Following widespread complaints about the campus dining options, the school is switching to Bon Appétit, an on-site restaurant company that focuses on sustainability and local purchasing.

Spelman will also create a funded and organized intramural sports program.

Students take swim classes at the pool at The Wellness Center at Read Hall on the campus of Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday April 19, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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“It’s all about change and difference. Coming out of a pandemic, where people were so bogged down with so many stressors, the sense of newness is going to be important,” said Darryl B. Holloman, vice president for student affairs.

Food & fitness

The college has received some of its largest donations in recent years. Spelman last month announced its fundraising campaign exceeded its initial $250 million goal, raising $339 million to cover student fees, improve technological infrastructure, to build the center, and to expand various initiatives across campus.

Last semester, several students and parents raised concerns about the quality and consistency of food on campus. They complained that food is often mislabeled, making it difficult for students with dietary restrictions; that the cafeteria hours are not long enough; the food is bad and that food options should be expanded to address the needs of vegetarians and vegans.

Holloman said the school understood the complaints.

Alannah Taylor, a graduating senior and SGA vice president at Spelman College, is pleased the school is working to improve its campus menu options.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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“The dietary expectations of African Americans have changed,” Holloman said. “They are looking for more pescatarian options, more vegan options, more vegetarian options, less high fat and high cholesterol. We’re just more conscious of how we eat and all of that is critically important.”

Alannah Taylor, Spelman student government association’s vice president, is happy about the change.

“It’s like a roller coaster,” Taylor said of the quality and consistency of the meal selections. “Year to year, it would up or it would go down. Last year, the girls hated the food. So I’m really excited that they will have the opportunity to try something new with Bon Appetit.”

Spelman, often ranked as the nation’s top academic HBCU, is also trying something new with its fitness programs.

Students exercise on Peloton bikes at The Wellness Center at Read Hall on the campus of Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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In 2012, Spelman eliminated athletics and diverted those funds toward establishing a campus-wide wellness program to address health and wellness issues facing Black women such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Sophomore Olivia Robinson believes Spelman recognized it needed to do more to provide fitness opportunities on campus after she helped start a lacrosse team last semester, which competes independently in a women’s city league.

Spelman’s intramural sports program will focus on basketball, tennis and volleyball. There are also plans for a club swim team that will compete against other local colleges.

“I can’t fully take credit, but I think having the team present, inspired people and brought up questions,” said Robinson, 20. “It is amazing to see the school and administration pour into this and help build into students and give us a more well-rounded experience.”

Midfielder Olivia Robinson runs a drill during their lacrosse practice at Spelman College on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Holloman said the school has tried intramurals at least twice in the past, but it was haphazard and usually run by students or volunteers. Now, Campus Wellness Director Germaine McAuley has allocated $160,000 for the program, which will include hiring an intramural director.

McAuley, the former athletic director, said students are already talking about forming intramural teams to start competing in the fall.

Germaine McAuley, Director of Campus Wellness at Spelman College stands inside of the Wellness Center at Read Hall on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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“We attract, academically, the best students from around the country,” Holloman said. But part of that is these individuals are very well-rounded. They just don’t come here smart. A lot of them come here having participated in a lot of competitive sports. This is what they are expecting.”