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Friday, December 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

Ruth Simmons book reading launches $1 million scholarship

Photo by Jeff Fitlow | The Rice Thresher
Courtesy Jeff Fitlow Ruth Simmons explored themes from her new book “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey” at Brockman Hall for Opera Sept. 22.

By Belinda Zhu     9/26/23 11:27pm

Ruth Simmons gave a talk on her New York Times bestselling memoir “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey” at the Brockman Hall of Opera on Sept. 22. in which she described her experiences growing up in the segregated South and creating a place for herself in this world. The talk ended with a surprise announcement from President Reggie DesRoches on the creation of a $1 million scholarship in Simmons’ honor. 

Graduate student Camille Little said she attended the event to come support Simmons and hear more about her story. Little has long seen Simmons as a role model since first hearing her speak at an event for the National Society of Black Engineers and being left with a lot of inspiration.

“Dr. Simmons has always been an inspiration ever since I heard her story as someone who is working on a Ph.D. as a Black woman specifically,” Little said. “The barriers she’s broken for African American women have always been inspiring to me.”

Simmons grew up in Grapeland, just north of Houston. According to Simmons, whenever she would visit, she would be going ‘up home.’ To Simmons, ‘up home’ ties her to her ancestors and parents, hence the title of her memoir. 

The youngest of 12 children born in East Texas, Simmons has become a pioneer in higher education. Simmons joined Rice as a president’s distinguished fellow in April, where she advises DesRoches and his office. Prior to this role, she served as the first Black Ivy League president at Brown University, along with terms as president of Prairie View A&M University and of Smith College. 

Simmons said she sees herself as unremarkable, believing her success was a historical coincidence. Had others been born with the same circumstances and opportunities as her, they would achieve similar things in life, Simmons said.

Simmons acknowledged that the world is changing, especially with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action. At her talk, she offered advice for students to stay hopeful and believe they can achieve anything. 

“Do what you need to do. Improve yourself. Challenge yourself. Be open minded. Meet different people. Don’t be a racist yourself,” Simmons said. “If you are working on yourself, it doesn’t matter [that] the world around you is changing perhaps. But, when it changes, you are going to be ready.”

Yiwen Zhang, a Rice business school alumna who brought her seven-year-old daughter to the event, said Simmons’ talk was inspiring.

“As [my daughter] is a minority and a girl, I think it is very helpful to empower her with this spirit that Dr. Simmons has,” Zhang said. “Dr. Simmons truly [englightens] us so it is very important for my daughter to know her story, learn something and gain strength from it.”

After attending the event, DesRoches said what makes Simmons special to him is that she leads with authenticity. DesRoches hopes Rice students not only learned more about Simmons and her perspectives, but her important messages regarding hope. 

“I hope students heard Dr. Simmons’ message of hope despite the challenges that still stand in our way of making higher education accessible to all,” DesRoches wrote in an email to the Thresher. “Simmons wrote her memoir —  ‘Up Home: One Girl’s Journey — for her students as a reminder that life is constructed through enduring difficult choices, hardships and even periods of unhappiness. She talked on Friday about how overcoming difficulties is one of the most important dimensions of becoming the person you want to be and that it isn’t interminable pain that you experience, because you find your way out the most difficult experiences.”

Simmons ended her talk with a statement that captured her thought. 

“You know, people make too much of happiness, I think,” Simmons said. “You’re on a path, and if you can just see beyond the next hurdle, it could be something so glorious, right?”

The talk ended with DesRoches announcing a one-million dollar scholarship in Simmons’ honor. Simmons put her hands over her face in emotion as the audience rose in applause.

“I cannot think of a better way to honor Dr. Simmons then [sic] to have a scholarship in her name, focused on students from her community,” DesRoches wrote in an email to the Thresher. “This scholarship would not have happened without the generosity of the Rice Board of Trustees. I am extremely grateful for the board’s support and am proud that Rice is able to honor Dr. Simmons and the important work she continues to do in higher education and beyond.”

“I certainly hope that this scholarship will enable children who have not had a lot of privilege in their life [to] come to a wonderful place like Rice and create a life for themselves beyond anything they could’ve imagined,” Simmons said.

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