Disney on the Yard, National Geographic Live and Disney Institute Inspire Exploration and Development at HBCUs Across the Country

National Geographic Explorer and African Diaspora Archaeologist Dr. Odewale at Grambling State University
Credit: Grambling State University

Inclusion is at the heart of everything that we do at The Walt Disney Company. Through our storytelling, content, experiences, and products we strive to create a culture of belonging so our guests feel seen and represented. The same goes for our workplace. Each unique perspective about the world inspires us and allows us to be more diverse.  With Disney on the Yard, we’re deepening our engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and are proud to be an impactful supporter of the HBCU community as we continue to engage more people.   

Disney on the Yard’s work with HBCUs continues to provide unique and meaningful opportunities to the HBCU community. For the past several months, the team has worked alongside Disney Institute and National Geographic Live to bring the first-of-its-kind diverse education and exploration offerings to select HBCU campuses around the U.S. 

As part of Black History Month, celebrated National Geographic Explorer and wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant visited Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia while National Geographic Explorer and African Diaspora Archaeologist Dr. Alicia Odewale visited Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Last fall, Dr. Odewale also visited Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. They each invited students to discover careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and shared their behind-the-scenes stories from the front lines of exploration alongside stunning imagery and gripping footage. Students were able to ask Dr. Wynn-Grant and Dr. Odewale personal questions, network on-site, and learn more about Disney on the Yard programming and National Geographic internships and scholarships. 

In the field, Dr. Grant works to protect and restore iconic wildlife populations, including North American black and grizzly bears. Dr. Odewale, who is a professor in and native to Tulsa, Oklahoma, travels across the U.S. to recall her groundbreaking journey and pathway to uncovering stories of resilience in the hundred years since the attack on Black Wall Street in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. She highlights how archaeology and radical mapping can be used as a tool for recovering lost stories, reclaiming a narrative, and pursuing restorative justice. 

Tiffany Oliver, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the biology department at Spelman College, was thrilled to host Dr. Wynn-Grant on campus. She found her presentation helpful and inspiring for students. “Dr. Wynn-Grant did an excellent job showing our students that there are many pathways to the Ph.D and that each student has the right to determine their own path while remaining true to themselves,” said Dr. Oliver. “Her description of her challenges navigating graduate school and her postdoc, decisions on motherhood, and more showed our students that black women who obtain PhDs in STEM are not just scientists, but they are daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives.” 

Dr. Odewale said of her time on campuses, “Partnering with Disney on the Yard and sharing my National Geographic Live show “Greenwood: A Century of Resilience” with HBCUs around the country has been an amazing experience. I have been able to connect with Black students, faculty, and staff at these historically vital institutions and share this larger story of Black community resilience in the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, all alongside the unique story of how I, as a Black woman from Oklahoma, became an archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer.” 

Similar to National Geographic Live, experiential events were integral for Disney Institute’s unique on-site educational programming. Facilitator Christopher Fults and Senior Facilitator and 2006 Walt Disney World Ambassador Marjorie Colas, PHR, MBA, delivered their own special brand of magic through one-day learning and development events to faculty and staff. Alcorn State University’s team was presented with Disney’s Approach to Leadership Excellence, while Norfolk State University’s team was presented with Disney’s Approach to Quality Service. A distinctly Disney experience, the offerings were designed to enhance knowledge and transferrable skills in leadership and quality service by showcasing how proven Disney business practices can be adapted and applied to other organizations. 

“Disney has been an amazing partner for Alcorn State University,” said Dr. Ontario Wooden, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Alcorn State University. “They’ve provided internships, allowed our marching band, the Sounds of Dyn-O-mite, to perform during HBCU Week in Orlando, Florida, an on-campus career fair, and hosted its Disney Institute to offer professional development for our faculty and staff. These experiences have offered high-level opportunities for our university community to receive practical experience and learn new skills to unlock their potential. We are grateful to Disney and its continued investment in Alcorn.” 

Credit: Alcorn State University. L-R: Jabreel Walker, Dr. Ontario Wooden, provost, Dr. Felecia M. Nave, president

Marjorie Colas said, “I was honored to represent Disney Institute in partnership with Disney on the Yard to facilitate two of our pillar courses. The HBCUs have a significant impact on educating the Black community, and to be able to be part of this collaboration was gratifying to me personally. I love the impact that our company can make by bringing a little Disney Magic to campuses across our nation. Representation matters and the HBCUs and Disney on the Yard are enabling, empowering and inspiring Black students. I can’t wait for next semester to visit more campuses.” 

Christopher said, “Having the opportunity to participate in our Disney on the Yard initiative was a great way to engage with HBCUs and have meaningful conversations. As a Cast Member, it is impactful to see how we give back and uplift our communities. It’s a privilege to be able to showcase what we have learned at Disney and enhance a university’s own type of magic for their students, faculty, and staff. 

Christopher Fults, Bonisha Townsend Porter, Norfolk State Senior Associate VP, Student Affairs, Marjorie Colas, and Corey Savage Credit: Donald Spencer, Norfolk State University

No matter the city or state, each campus activation had one clear message: never stop exploring – either mind or matter. National Geographic awarded a student at each school with a $10,000 scholarship. The selected students were also given the opportunity to participate in an upcoming two-week immersion program at the National Geographic campus headquarters in Washington, D.C., and receive an executive mentor.   

Karen Greenfield, Senior Vice President of Content, Diversity & Inclusion for National Geographic Content said, “Our goal is for scholars to gain valuable experience learning from experts at a strong global brand and an organization with a rich history of scientific discovery, exploration, and dynamic storytelling. On-site they’ll be able to learn about the various lines of businesses, from traditional media to experiences that bring the National Geographic brand to consumers worldwide.”  

Corey Savage, Manager, Outreach & Engagement at The Walt Disney Company, who helped bring this entire campus tour to life and has more events planned for additional HBCUs in the coming months, said, “We’re proud to support HBCUs and provide diverse opportunities that directly benefit the HBCU community’s needs at all levels.” 

This work is part of Disney Future Storytellers, an initiative that empowers the next generation of storytellers and innovators to dream about their future, build their talents and skills, and become who they imagine they can be. 

By: Robyn Sheckler