An event intended to honor higher education trailblazer Ruth Simmons’ best-selling new memoir became a groundbreaking event of its own when Rice University President Reginald DesRoches announced the creation of a $1 million scholarship in Simmons’ honor.
Established by the Rice Board of Trustees to acknowledge the work that Simmons, a President’s Distinguished Fellow, has done throughout her career and to reconfirm Rice’s commitment to the community, the scholarship fund will support students who otherwise might not be able to attend the university.
“Some of these students will undoubtedly come from Dr. Simmons’ childhood neighborhood, the Fifth Ward,” DesRoches said.
KPRC-TV meteorologist and “Houston Newsmakers” host Khambrel Marshall and Simmons spent an hour in the Shepherd School of Music’s Brockman Hall for Opera Sept. 22 exploring various milestones and themes in “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey,” a New York Times bestseller now in its third printing.
The memoir chronicles Simmons’ life from growing up on farmland in East Texas to Houston’s Fifth Ward to New Orleans at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. She depicts a bygone era that’s also a legacy of inequality that lives on today. It is both an origin story set in the segregated South and the uplifting chronicle of a girl whose intellect, grace and curiosity guide her as she creates a place for herself in the world.
Simmons wrote the book for her students as a reminder that life is constructed through enduring difficult choices, hardships and even periods of unhappiness.
“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?
“I am the person I am because of the difficulties that I endured as well as the successes that I enjoyed, so I want them to understand how being challenged is another element of growth. Overcoming difficulties is one of the most important dimensions of becoming the person you want to be and that it isn't an interminable pain that you experience, because you find your way out of the most difficult experiences.”
Simmons discussed growing up in poverty as the youngest of 12 children, her parents’ influence and obstacles, the opportunities she was given through her young life and college years and how she used those experiences to shape her impact in education.
Her goal is to show young people the grit and hardship as well as inspiration her life demonstrates.
“I want students to be more realistic about life and to be able to weather the things that they're going through, because it does get better if they keep putting one foot in front of the other foot,” she said.
One particular passage Simmons discussed in detail was the joy she experienced going to a classroom with her own desk. As she describes, growing up the youngest of a dozen siblings, she never felt a sense of ownership until she entered the classroom of kindergarten teacher Ida Mae Henderson, lovingly referred to as Miss Ida Mae.
“Imagine walking into a bright room with a teacher who is beyond cheerful, saying that this is the most wonderful place in the world, welcome and here's your own space,” Simmons said.
She also offered her own advice for teachers, modeled after Henderson’s practices.
“When you go into a classroom, no matter what kind of day you're having, you have to forget that, and if you're having a down day, you better become an actor because no child needs to see you being negative, complaining and making it appear that the world is a horrible place,” Simmons said. “For many children who come into a classroom, you're the only hope they have. So you've got to be sunshine itself if you are in front of those children. That's what [Henderson] was for me.”
Simmons also discussed details about her experience in college. Some were serious—like her views about discrimination and her advocacy for historically black colleges and universities as well as community college students having access to Ivy League schools—while others were lighthearted idiosyncrasies like her love of butter rolls and her many uses for bacon fat.
Simmons uses one word to describe her life: “unremarkable.” Her history, however, has proven to be the opposite.
Simmons was the first black president of an Ivy League school at Brown University, and she served as president of Prairie View A&M University and Smith College. She was also the provost at Spelman College and vice provost at Princeton University and is a Rice trustee emerita, serving on the board from 2014-18.
“Up Home: One Girl’s Journey” (224 pages, Random House) is available for purchase online or in local bookstores.
View and download video of the surprise announcement here.