Student Pipeline Brings Memphis Soul to Rutgers–Camden

“I AM a native son of South Memphis. I grew up right over on Mason Street.”

The students of LaRose Elementary, filling nearly every seat in the school auditorium, perked up in recognition. Moments earlier, about half raised their hands when Rutgers University–Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis asked if they had heard of a state called New Jersey. To close the assembly, he led a lesson in the LaRose Alma Mater: “LaRose, LaRose, LaRose, oh how we love you / Fondest memories we will ever have for you.” The lyrics and melody flowed easily, as LaRose Elementary was the very school where he began his education.

It was an emotional homecoming for Chancellor Tillis, but his work in Memphis was far from over. Some of the very same students he met that day may eventually make the 900-mile journey from Memphis to Camden to begin their college careers. They will have this opportunity thanks to the Memphis Pipeline Project, a unique student-centered program that allows high school graduates from Chancellor Tillis’s hometown to attend Rutgers–Camden with special scholarships and support networks.

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This spring, Chancellor Tillis led a delegation of Rutgers–Camden administrators, faculty, and staff in making Memphis connections and helping students aged five to 18 visualize their paths to higher education. Headlining the schedule of events was a Memphian spin on the May 1 observance of National Signing Day, a tradition in which college-bound students throughout the country festively formalize their school selections.  An event featuring speeches, giveaways, and plenty of local cuisine was held to honor the Memphis Pipeline Project’s second cohort of students, who will begin their studies during the Fall 2024 semester.

For Chancellor Tillis, a desire to give back to Memphis students was only part of the initiative’s genesis. The Memphis Pipeline Project also emerged from a promise to return to his native city as more than just a visitor.

“My generation of graduates from the Memphis City Schools were supposed to come home as the workforce and leaders of the city, but many of us—like me—never came home,” Chancellor Tillis said at Signing Day. “Through this program, we are educating students and sending them home between academic years so they can have internships over the summers and jobs waiting for them in Memphis when they graduate.”

“Through this program, we are educating students and sending them home between academic years, so that they can have internships over the summers and jobs waiting for them in Memphis when they graduate.”

–Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis

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And what a city they will return to! Although Memphis has no shortage of tourist attractions and culture-rich neighborhoods, no place epitomizes the soul of the city quite like Beale Street, where a procession of juke joints, blues bars, and barbecue restaurants hosts convivial crowds rivaling those of New Orleans’s Bourbon Street.  Beale Street was where Memphis’s Black blues artists and white country musicians came together. Defying segregationist norms, music pioneers like B.B. King, Billy Lee Riley, and Mavis Staples performed harmoniously, giving Memphis a signature sound all its own. Fittingly, Beale Street’s Withers Gallery—home to the works of self-taught photojournalist Ernest Withers, who captured the stark highs and lows of the Civil Rights Movement—was the setting for the Signing Day celebration, which heralded the building of bridges between Tennessee and New Jersey.

“It takes a village; we’re not just committed to young people, we’re committed to their families,” Chancellor Tillis said. “We bring them to campus and acclimate them over the summer, because you cannot be successful in a place where you do not feel comfortable.  As a first-generation college student myself, I think about what I wish I had known. That’s how we start with these students.”

As they prepare to begin their academic careers, the program’s second cohort can take comfort in knowing the inaugural cohort is thriving. Chancellor Tillis noted that the first cohort’s 14 members have excelled academically, not in the least because of the support they provide for one another. They have enjoyed experiences that may have seemed out of reach in Memphis, such as when they recently traveled together to see “The Wiz” on Broadway. Two students with particularly sterling academic records traveled to Malawi to study wind energy. Chancellor Tillis, who is an advocate of these kinds off-campus learning experiences, sees the inaugural cohort’s success as just the beginning of what the program can achieve.  

“Through this program, Memphis and Camden are becoming connected in so many ways,” Chancellor Tillis said. “I am grateful for the continued work of the faculty, staff, community partners, families, and—most of all—the students who are making this alliance such a success.”

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Design: Douglas Shelton
Photography: Ron Downes Jr.