Colette Pierce Burnette didn’t have the smoothest of landings when she arrived in Austin just over two years ago.
She fell in the Atlanta airport and was dependent on ride-hailing apps to get around for the first couple of weeks. To add insult to injury, most of her drivers didn’t know how to get to her new workplace, Huston-Tillotson University, where she was taking over as the school’s president.
“Out of 10 rides, eight of the people didn’t know where the university was," she said. "So in hindsight, that was a strong message to me, because I wanted people to know the beauty of Huston-Tillotson."
Pierce Burnette is determined to raise the university's profile in Austin. One of her first goals was to create more partnerships with businesses in the area, including Figure 8 Coffee.
On many mornings, you can find her sitting at a table in the shop on Chicon Street. She says she encourages students to use the coffee shop as a meeting place for clubs as a way to get off campus.
“We have to continue to insert ourselves in and not close up on the community," she said, adding that she had read an editorial before she started that said Huston-Tillotson was beginning to face outward as opposed to inward. "So, we are truly facing outward.”
Huston-Tillotson was once two separate schools founded in the late 19th century, Samuel Huston College and Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute. In 1952, the schools combined. Jackie Robinson was the athletic director at Huston College for a short time; he even coached the men’s basketball team.
Pierce Burnette, who says she has always wanted to run a historically black college or university, sees the school as an opportunity not only for the students who attend, but also for the surrounding community.
“I envision East Austin to be very similar to the area of Cleveland that I grew up in, but we didn’t have a university in the middle of my community,” she says. “If we had a university in the middle of my community, the quality of life in my own community would be very different today.”
But the surrounding community has changed a lot over the last few decades. The area was predominantly African-American for years, but has quickly become more diverse, with wealthier, white people moving into newly built, more expensive homes. Pierce Burnette says that doesn’t bother her.
“I hear people say about the lost culture in East Austin, et cetera, et cetera: ‘It’s only lost if we lose it,’" she said. "We are deeply rooted in the community. We are a cultural icon.”
It’s possible for a “beautiful, thriving community of color, [with] all kinds of people, to grow up and thrive around a university,” she said.
For the last three years during South by Southwest, the school has hosted a diversity hackathon for high school students of color in the community.
“That’s the only fully African-American put-together, ran and implemented hackathon of its kind," Pierce Burnette says. "And it’s for the community; it’s not for the university. It’s to get young people interested in coding. We use social justice issues for the hackathon. It’s a unique twist on how we do it.”
One of the students who attended this year’s hackathon was Ismael Cornejo, an electrical engineering major at Huston-Tillotson. He's on the school's soccer team and in the honor society, Golden Key.
At the hackathon, Cornejo decided to tackle a problem he knows well: college admission and scholarship applications.
“I like that idea, because when I was applying there wasn’t really a lot of people to help me, and Ifelt I was on my own," he said. So, he decided to develop an app that helps students apply to college and for scholarships.
Cornejo said he feels connected to Pierce Burnette, which she says is intentional. She attends student meetings and shares personal stories.
“I have worked very, very hard to know the story of my student – what they’re up against … what their needs are. The students call it the 'framily' or the ‘ram fam,’” she says, referring to Huston-Tillotson’s mascot, the ram. "So, we have our family stuff, and that’s life. But I truly feel that I know, I have a finger on the pulse of the student that Huston-Tillotson attracts.”
One of the mantras from the hackathon was #IamthePipeline. As a former engineer, Pierce Burnette said she wants to move more and more liberal arts majors to tech spaces.
“Some of the most impressive techies that I’ve known started off as history majors, and then they just kind of get that bug to really get into the app world or whatever,” she said. “But they think a certain way, and they’re educated a certain way. There’s that part about liberal arts majors moving into the tech startups.”
Beyond that, Pierce Burnette wants to boost enrollment at the school. Right now, student enrollment is around 1,000 students. She also wants to build a new community health center for students, which would include a new gym – a feat that will require a lot of fundraising. Pierce Burnette doesn’t want those costs to increase tuition.
“You can’t depend on tuition revenues to sustain you, so you have to go out and find friends and funds and grants and all kinds of things,” she said. “And that was another change in the culture, in the mind, thinking here in Austin. The university is not a charity. It’s an investment in the future. It’s a strength.”
Pierce Burnette is a forward thinker. She doesn’t dwell on the past and won’t speak to it since she wasn’t at Huston-Tillotson to experience it. But she said she sees signs of change even in her first two years as president.
“The students who are upperclassmen, they say the university is different now. At new student orientation, I had a couple of seniors come back to campus and they learned what the new first-time freshman experience, and they were jealous. That’s a good sign. That means that we’re doing something good, something right.”
The next step is continuing to make sure that change spreads throughout East Austin and the city overall.