HAMPTON — Lauren Cyrus was out of her dorm by 9:20 a.m., searching the campus for the best intel on the arrival of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Cyrus, a Hampton University freshman studying political science, found it. At the back of Turner Hall, the school’s science building, she peppered a group of men in suits with questions. She thought some might be Secret Service agents.
“They told me my best bet was to go the Greek Plaza and then wait,” Cyrus said. “I was not missing this.”
Cyrus was among the students on Friday who stood along Marshall Avenue to get a glimpse of Harris as she arrived in a motorcade about a half-hour after landing at Newport News-Williamsburg Airport at 11 a.m. As she rode past and waved, students cheered and welcomed her — the first graduate of a Historically Black College and University to become vice president.
Harris toured the university and its science facilities as National HBCU Week ends. The Howard University alumna met with several students majoring in STEM fields during a 45-minute roundtable session that was live-streamed on Whitehouse.gov.
“We are at the beginning of a new era. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. You are the leaders in this new era,” Harris said. “Our nation and our world will require the smart people that you are to lead on issues that require dedication, and a development of skills around science and technology and engineering.”
Harris called investment in HBCUs necessary as an investment in national security to remain competitive, particularly with STEM field occupations growing twice the rate of others, especially for women in the workforce.
“For women of color, in particular for Black woman, STEM careers will help narrow the pay gap,” Harris said. “When we talk about the role of HBCUs … let’s be very clear that HBCUs are not only competing, HBCUs are leading.”
Harris chatted with the students about their interest in STEM, about the necessity of developing expertise and touched upon topics in machine learning, climate change, defense, projects at NASA Langley Research Center, to name a few, while learning about their research in these areas.
“The world is not going to work if we don’t continue our research, whether it’s with weather, whether it’s with ocean,” said Schyler Turner, 20, a biochemistry major. “The fact that she took time out of her day to come and hear my opinions and what I think, that’s important to do. That’s the kind of leader I want to be.”
Aaron Jones, 21, who is majoring in physics and interested in nuclear physics and renewable energy projects, said the visit impacted him because 2020 was his first year voting in an election and now, he’s meeting the vice president.
“She kept saying we are the leaders of the generation … to hear a person with that much power and position, really kind of humble herself and give praise — I am so inspired,” he said.
Jordan Lyles-Holly, the Hampton University chapter president of Alpha Kappa Alpha — Harris’ sorority — added that her presence helps to bring “light” to the HBCUs and the Greek organizations that most people likely didn’t know about.
The White House Initiative on HBCUs works with multiple agencies, the private-sector, educational associations and philanthropic groups to increase the capacity of HBCUs. Every September that effort is celebrated with a week-long conference of programs, ceremonies and activities to acknowledge the contributions these institutions and their alumni have made, a university spokesman said.
Hampton University is one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs. Its origins date to 1868, beginning as the Hampton Normal School, and later becoming the Hampton Institute.
“There’s no one in this region that has what we have,” said university president William Harvey, who invited Harris a month ago. “People don’t know what we have as it relates to STEM. I’m glad the vice president and her staff understand.”
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