The Rust College Lady Bearcats Basketball team’s bus pulled onto the North Mississippi campus in February 2022. On a nearby stage, singer Anita Ward stood performing her hit song, “Ring My Bell,” while students and faculty danced to the music. The athletes exited the bus while carrying the trophy that signified their freshly earned status as 2022 Gulf Coast Athletic Conference champions. The crowd, there for the Home Depot “Retool Your Campus” competition, applauded the Lady Bearcats’ victory.
“The girls had just arrived on campus, so we got to celebrate them during the event,” Rust College Vice President for Institutional Advancement Tiffani Perry told the Mississippi Free Press. “The morale of the student body, it just kicked up a notch.”
In its 14th year, the Home Depot “Retool Your School” grant program awards three types of campus-improvement grants to historically Black colleges and universities, ranging from $40,000 to $150,000, using an online voting challenge. Perry described the huge social-media campaigns and videos other HBCUs started to encourage people to vote for them. She learned that engaging with students during the pre-voting phase was key to added success.
“We were like, ‘Wait a minute. We gotta do better. We can compete. We’re a little school, but we got this,’” Perry recalled. “So, for this year, we actually started our planning before the end of (last) year.”
The school also sent emails to its constituents to remind them of the voting period and to excite them about voting. Taking the lessons of the last year and applying them this year helped the school place ninth in the voting competition, securing $40,000 for the Holly Springs, Miss., HBCU. Last year, the school won 10th place.
“Hopefully, next year, we’ll see even more as a result of that,” she said.
A beautiful part about the grant program is that it gave the school an opportunity to survey its students and use their input to decide which projects receive the allocated funds, Perry explained. Rust College students have voted for creating a game room on campus, for example.
“They know that their voices are being heard, and they know that the administration is working very hard with the partners to address the things they feel are important,” Perry said. “I think receiving those funds in a way that addresses something the students directly decided on, it’s huge for HBCUs to continue to see positive retention rates amongst our students.”
‘A Safe Zone’
Home Depot awarded grants to 36 HBCUs this year including Tougaloo College, Jackson State University, Coahoma Community College and Mississippi Valley State University. The program categorizes schools into three clusters based on student population.
For placing second, Home Depot will award Jackson State University and Tougaloo College $100,000 grants; for 10th place, they will award Mississippi Valley State University a $40,000 grant; and for first place, they’ll award Coahoma Community College a $150,000 grant.
Coahoma Community College Director of Student Engagement Karen Woods-Done said grant funds like the “Retool Your School” program make noticeable differences for HBCUs because those higher-education institutions do not always have as much money to put toward athletics and other areas on campus as they would like.
“Research shows that when we have beautiful campuses that are welcoming, students build this sense of belonging and connections to those institutions and ultimately become alums who want to give back,” Woods-Done explained.
“So these funds are important because it allows us to create that atmosphere, that sense of belonging for our students that we may not be able to afford with those federal and state funds,” she concluded.
After surveying Coahoma Community College students, the school learned that students want outdoor study spaces and an updated game room, Woods-Done said.
Mississippi Valley State University Vice President for University Advancement Dameon Shaw added that the grants transform areas of their university that would not get attention otherwise, and the money allows the administration and students to come together for a common cause.
“This gives them the opportunity and us the opportunity to actually do things that we know they want because they’re involved in the process,” Shaw said. “They take ownership of it. … We’ve noticed that projects that students are in, they’re less likely to destroy. They’re going to definitely take care of those.”
Mississippi Valley State University will install pagodas with benches in different areas across the campus so students have outdoor spaces to relax and study.
“This day and time, mental health is really, really critical for our students, so we feel that this will give them a little serene play to just go out, relax, (and) give them a comfortable space or a safe zone,” he said.
‘Trap and Tweet’
Jackson State University Director of Community Engagement Heather Denne’ said the school has received about 900 survey responses. Once JSU calculates the results, the school will assess the options to find ones that are within the institution’s means, as well as reach out to facilities that may be able to assist with ideas not as easy to implement for one reason or another.
“Last year, (students) asked for washers and dryers in all the dorms,” Denne’ said. “Because we already had a contract in place with another vendor, it was gonna cost us money to get out of that contract. So we opted for their second option, which was an indoor study space and entertainment space.”
Working closely with students increases the odds that students themselves will take care of the new facilities and maintain them long-term, the director said. The online voting challenge is a friendly competition every year, Denne’ added, especially since Home Depot offers smaller awards like “Who Votes First?”
“Unfortunately, Coahoma wins that award almost every single year, so we’re plotting on how to win ‘Who Voted First?’” Denne’ said, jokingly. “That’s our strategy moving forward next year.”
Food was an effective incentive in getting students engaged in voting, Coahoma Community College’s Woods-Done said. The department partnered with the Student Government Association to organize trap-and-tweet sessions where students could eat and tweet with trap music playing in the background.
“We incentivized different clubs and organizations on our campus this year,” Woods-Done said. “If you look at our Twitter accounts, you will see the Home Depot hashtag, but you’ll also see an organization hashtag. So then it became a competition even on campus.”
“And we learned that in year one, watching Twitter,” Rust College’s Tiffani Perry added. “(This year), we had dip-and-vote nights for students, where we served various dips, and we let them come into the computer labs and vote.”
‘When You Get a Yes’
Last year, Rust College was able to use its “Retool Your School” grant to transform an empty space in the middle of campus into a student plaza with a stage, benches, pergolas and sitting areas. This year, when the school hosted a preview day for prospective students, the campus tour started at the most up-to-date space on campus.
“The students were actually out there during that time,” Perry said. “I think it really helped the prospective students to see themselves on campus hanging out with the DJ on Wednesday and seeing themselves as a part of the mix.”
Campus-beautification projects can both instill pride among students attending the institution and attract prospective students to universities.
“One of the things I preach all the time is that when HBCUs were founded, our students were coming to our institutions pretty much because they had to; they didn’t have another choice,” Mississippi Valley State University’s Shaw said. “But now they have choices to go anywhere they want in the world, so we have to make our institutions attractive and inviting to these students.”
While working under the grant program, Home Depot Senior Specialist Nikke Gant has learned a lot about HBCUs—from the infrastructural issues they may face to how vocal their students can be when demanding better conditions, as well as the might that small HBCUs can exhibit despite their size. This knowledge will help her better serve these schools, she explained.
“We think that this program helps with (financing schools’ needs); it doesn’t solve all problems, but we think that it solves some,” Gant said. “It has been an extreme pleasure just getting to know everyone that we’ve worked with over the past couple of years, understanding the nuances for each of the schools because every school is different.”
Heather Denne’ spends a good amount of time writing grants in the Division of Institutional Advancement at Jackson State University, but she finds the Home Depot grant program appealing, in part, because it is based on votes, not proposals, she said.
“When you’re talking about large sums of money, so many times you get ‘no’s, so for this to be something that’s championed by votes only is something that really excites everyone and is just a relief when you get a yes because you know it’s a collaborative effort,” Denne’ said.
Tougaloo College released a press release on May 17, 2023, thanking Home Depot for the grant and for honoring Dr. Shenika Harrison as a Home Depot Legacy Honoree. “This award recognizes her outstanding contributions to the field of education, her tireless commitment to our students’ success, and her visionary leadership,” the statement reads.
The school plans to use its $100,000 grant to improve its infrastructure, upgrade its technological equipment, and create spaces that foster innovation, collaboration and personal growth, the statement said.