FAMU marching band

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) is celebrating its 133rd year this fall, and as its students and faculty navigate the struggles inherent in online classes, the college is determined to continue supporting the educational goals of those hoping to attend the historically Black university.

Thomas Gibbs and Thomas Tucker founded FAMU on Oct. 3, 1887. Started with just fifteen students and two instructors, the university located on the highest hill of Tallahassee has grown significantly in class size and staff. Today its noteworthy graduates include author Ibram X. Kendi, sportscaster Pam Oliver and entertainer Common.

The Miami-Dade alumni chapter focuses on recruiting high school students from South Florida, disseminating scholarship information and sharing what it means, and takes, to be a Rattler. Its “Set Friday” fundraisers – so called as a reference to FAMU’s weekly on-campus marketplace, where students have traditionally gathered every Friday to browse the wares of fellow students and other vendors, eat and socialize with their peers – have been moved to online platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live.

With recent protests for justice for systemic racism, HBCUs are needed now more than ever, and maintaining regular meetups has become more critical.

“You can see that from the state of affairs that our country faces now, you know, Black people are still trying to search for legitimacy,” said FAMU Miami-Dade alumni chapter president Masekela Mandela II. “Hey, my life matters, your life matters, our lives matter. HBCUs reinforce that and say, ‘Here's why your life matters.’”

The alumni group reassures those who are looking for a school that will welcome and support the fight for human rights, that this is the university for them.

“We do our best at FAMU to encourage people to stand up for their rights,” said Mandela. “There's no shortchange and we assure you of that.”

Mandela graduated from FAMU in 2012 and now is dedicated to supporting the Miami community by providing potential students with another option for schooling: a university that allows students to be unapologetically Black.

“FAMU may be a little further away from home than other schools,” said Mandela, “but the cultural experience and the cultural immersion that you get there is really unmatched.”

The HBCU constantly fights for legitimacy amongst other state schools. The funding it receives from the state is based on enrollment.

“The university was concerned about the lack of enrollment numbers due to coronavirus, and [that more] students wouldn’t be able to afford college,” said Mandela. “But those fears were kind of allayed when it was determined that the number of students that were coming in was not as low as anticipated. I think they [FAMU] were expecting a 10% decline and it was only about 5% to 6%.”

With healthier than expected enrollment, Mandela and his group want to offer even more scholarships than in years prior. Normally, the chapter would receive more than $25,000 in scholarships from sponsors such as community members and corporations. Now with the pandemic, the chapter faces the challenge of making its weekly fundraiser meetings just as engaging in the digital space as they are in the physical space. This year’s Founders Day event will be a virtual celebration of Gibbs and Tucker, and a nostalgic look back at FAMU campus life from the 1950s to the present. There will be music, trivia and a photo slideshow.

Before the pandemic, Mandela had planned to hold a bowling fundraiser, as he did the year before.

“We had a bowling tournament last year at SpareZ Bowling,” said Mandela. “It went well and we were planning to sell out the bowling alley this year, but then the pandemic happened. It would be great if we could raise over $5,000 for this particular event.”

“At least $18 and 87 cents, that's in reference to the year that FAMU was founded or the year that you graduated,'' said Mandela. “If you graduated in 1967, donate like $19 and 67 cents or $1,967, whatever you feel comfortable donating.”

The free virtual event is open to the public and encourages people to participate and donate. Happening on Oct. 2 at 8 p.m., those interested in attending can register to do so at setfridays.eventbrite.com.

“We're going to provide an environment where you can express yourself no matter what you look like,” said Mandela. “Because you're still a part of this Black culture and the history that that entails.”

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