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Olivier Charles President Bishop State community collegeIn honor of Black History Month, Adams and Reese spoke with HBCU Presidents and educational leaders at our partner institutions. We discussed the opportunities they provide and integral roles they play in shaping futures of young Black leaders, the influences on their careers, and what Black History Month means to them. Olivier Charles is in his first year as leader of Bishop State Community College, a Mobile, Ala.-based community, junior, and technical college founded in 1927.

What impact does an HBCU have on the community and its young black people?

“One of the major impacts an HBCU has on its community and the young black people in that community is representation. It’s the opportunity to be in an environment that challenges a person to grow, progress, and develop skills and character traits as a young or mature adult while still being surrounded by a rich and deep culture. It's also the guarantee of a quality education. I think back to nearly 100 years ago when Bishop State was first established. It was the Mobile Branch of Alabama State College which is now Alabama State University. It was established because there was nowhere else African Americans could go for post-secondary education in this region. Bishop State was created to meet that need, and now more than 95 years later, Bishop State is still meeting the needs of our community. Those needs have grown and our audience has expanded, but this community college is still a college for the people.”

What does your role as an HBCU President and educational leader mean to you?

“I’ve said it many times since I've taken this role, but being President at Bishop State Community College is my dream job. I am living my dream. I grew up right here in the Mobile Campground neighborhood and it was on this very campus that I would walk through twice a day to and from school. It was my physical reminder that opportunities were within my reach. I felt different when I walked across this campus. It felt possible. That’s how I want every student who comes onto any of our campuses to feel. They too can achieve their dreams at Bishop State. So, now as President, it is my job to make sure this college is not only the best historically black community college in Alabama but the best community college in Alabama, period. I now get to take my experiences, my connections, and all my gained knowledge and pour it into making sure my students - current and future - have the same opportunities - if not better ones - than any other student at any other institution. Mobile gave me so much and this role affords me the opportunity to serve my students and the community as my way of giving back.”

What has had the biggest impact personally and/or professionally in your career?

“Not what, but who. I have been fortunate. Everywhere that I've worked, God had has placed amazing people around me. From my wife, to my friends, to coaches, to bosses, to co-workers, and mentors, I have always had good people around me who have believed in me and bought in. One of the things that all leaders know is that we cannot do anything ourselves. So, the people around me have always had the biggest impact on me. Especially the ones that tell me what I need to hear and not what I want to hear. I am grateful for all of them. I also work very hard to always make sure the people around me know that I appreciate them. Without them, I wouldn't be successful.” 

Who is your hero and/or biggest influence?

“That’s an easy one. My mother. She is one of the best people I know. She grew up poor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and she only made it to the third grade. Yet, she is one of the smartest, hardest-working, and humblest people that I know. She made so many sacrifices so that I could be where I am today. I distinctly remember my childhood in Haiti, but when I was nine years old, she sold everything she owned and bought four boat tickets so that we could float toward the United States. When we first moved to the U.S. it was very hard for our family. But she would always say that even though we are poor, we have more opportunity here (the U.S.) than anywhere else and it is our responsibility to do something with it. I still live by those words today. Because of her, I have spent my entire career helping people seize their opportunities.”  

What special meaning does Black History Month have for you?

“Black History is American history. It’s not separate. No matter how ugly or uncomfortable some parts of our history may be, it’s still a part of our total story. Just like we tell our students: we teach history so that we all can learn the lessons and we don’t make the same mistakes. Black History is a major thread in the beautiful tapestry that makes America the nation that it is. We would not be the great nation we are today without the sacrifices, innovations, courage, and bravery of the black people who lived, died, and survived in it. So, Black History Month is an opportunity to not cast blame or feel guilty about our history, but to learn about the magnitude of contributions Black people made to America so we can continue to grow, progress, and thrive as a nation. Ultimately as an educational leader, I always appreciate an opportunity to learn and share knowledge.” 

About Bishop State Community College: For close to 100 years, Bishop State Community College has offered university transfer programs for minority students wanting to continue their education at a four-year school, or those who seek to start their careers right away. Bishop State incorporates fast-track, credentialed, transferable, and degree-awarding programs to train students with new skills, increase career opportunities for South Alabamians, and support economic development efforts in the area.

About Olivier Charles: President Olivier Charles has served in higher education leadership for more than a decade, beginning first as Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at the University of West Alabama and as Director of Admissions and Recruitment at Auburn University at Montgomery. Prior to becoming Vice Chancellor for Student Success, Charles served as Dean of Students at Enterprise State Community College. Charles earned both a Bachelor of Science in Special Education and a Master of Science in College Student Development from the University of West Alabama. Charles grew up in Mobile and is a proud graduate of Murphy High School.