The Power of Film
With a focus on institutions and individuals that seek to care for their communities, the new documentary The Antidote is filled with powerful moments. But towards the end, there’s a particularly electrifying sequence that shows Amarillo College graduate Alicia Morin giving a commencement speech.
It’s not just because viewers have learned about Morin’s struggles (low-paying jobs, single motherhood, dyslexia, depression) in the course of the 2020 film. It’s not just because the audience has heard how the Texas college’s Advocacy and Resources Center helped Morin with counseling, financial assistance, groceries, and more in her most desperate hours. And it’s not just because viewers see the college’s social workers cheering Morin on as she prepares to speak before thousands at the Amarillo Civic Center.
It’s because of what she says to those thousands—and what happens as a result. After expressing gratitude for those who have helped her achieve her degree, she takes a deep breath and says:
“Stand if you have ever gone to a study session and you or someone brought food. Stand if you have ever lent or borrowed a textbook. Stand if you have ever helped tutor a student who needed help with a class. And, lastly, stand if you helped a fellow student out with encouragement, direction, accountability, or even love.”
The camera pans across the graduates and everyone is standing. “You see,” she says, choking back tears, “we all are here today because we all helped each other.
Morin wasn’t the only one who became emotional at the sight. Amarillo College President Russell Lowery-Hart admits he was so moved, he became a “blubbering mess.” Yet, that moment, preserved forever on film, exemplifies Lowery-Hart’s drive to make the college more supportive and understanding of students and the major and minor barriers that prevent academic success.
Under Lowery-Hart’s leadership (president since 2014, vice president of academic affairs for the four years prior), Amarillo college has built the No Excuses program. Between funds provided by the Amarillo College Foundation and a variety of community assistance, the program enables the ARC and its three social workers to serve as a focal point for help students conquer their challenges. Resources include a network of food pantries across the college’s five campuses, financial assistance, childcare services, hygiene and childcare products, career and mental health counselling, and more.
“The foundation was really instrumental in helping the No Excuses program get started because there was no funding in the college's budget to actually give money to the students,” says Tracy Dougherty, the foundation’s chief operating officer. “Our program has become a model across the country because we’re able to help students—usually, within two hours, but always within 24 hours—for emergency needs.”
That model also caught the eye of The Atlantic, which published an extensive 2018 article about the college, this program, and the students and staff involved. As a result, the filmmakers behind The Antidote, a documentary about ”kindness, decency, and the power of community in America,” reached out to Amarillo College to be one of nine communities profiled. Dougherty says the film crew spent about a week on campus, interviewing students, following staff, and highlighting Lowery-Hart’s regular practice of buying students lunch, then conversing about the ways they think the college is succeeding or failing.
In the documentary, available on Amazon Prime Video and other methods, Lowery-Hart talks about not really understanding the number of students who were hungry or homeless (among other barriers to academic success) until he began to speak to students directly about their lives. He calls himself a “recovering academic,” working to comprehend the issues that continue a cycle of poverty for so many in Amarillo. As such, the college has created a profile for the “typical” Amarillo College student, who is considerably different than the stereotypical 18-year-old high school graduate.
“Our student is Maria, who is 27, working two part-time jobs while raising 1.2 kids,” Lowery-Hart says. “She needs a degree to survive and thrive economically. What she doesn’t need is dances or comedians [brought to campus]. She needs childcare, transportation, health care. She needs help with her resume and practice with interviews, so she can get a job that pays a living wage. Most of the time, higher ed is not set up for her.”
The Antidote shows the ARC helping with some of these needs and features a sequence in which a student comes to Jordan Herrera, director of social services, about automobile repair bills that haven eaten up her financial aid. We see Herrera communicate with a local church about getting a donation, then drive to the church to pick up a $300 check, then drive to the repair shop to deliver the funds. Impressed with these efforts, the clerk at the shop gives her a discount, prompting a conversation about the importance of community. Soon, the student returns to the ARC to find that the bill has been paid and bursts into tears of gratitude, saying “You never turn me down. You never turn me away.”
From the film, viewers can tell that the ARC is a significant place on campus, with glass office walls and a central location. The ARC is not tucked down a hallway, in a corner of the institution, emphasizes Joe Bill Sherrod, the college’s vice president of institutional advancement
“When I came here a year ago, I learned this is by design; it’s very visible,” he says. “The idea behind it is to make this a situation where we remove the shame from our students. What we’re saying is there’s no shame in being hungry or in not having a place to live. Don’t act as if there is. We’re going to help you improve your situation. Education is the key to help stop this cycle.”
Another challenge that both Sherrod and Lowery-Hart recognize is that their region is conservative, politically, which means that there can be resistance to the kind of support the college, the ARC, and the No Excuses program provide. Assistance can be perceived as “welfare” for those who don’t know the realities of the situation.
“Until they can see it, they view it through a political lens,” Lowery-Hart says. “It’s hard to be a prophet in your own land sometimes.”
Dougherty talks about the impact on donors who witness the results of the No Excuses program firsthand and how some community members increased donations upon better understanding Amarillo College’s plans. She and others hope that The Antidote can be a way to show, not just tell, the story of the college and its students.
“I just feel like this is a little-known entity in our community that the population needs to know more about,” Dougherty says. “Nationally, No Excuses has become a model for a lot of schools. But, locally, we can do a better job in talking about it.”
Because The Antidote was shot more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic began (but released in the fall of 2020), Lowery-Hart says that the plan was to hold a bunch of in-person movie screenings to celebrate the college’s involvement and illustrate staff, faculty, students, and donors’ hard work. But, in a time of social distancing and remote classes, Amarillo College hosted a virtual screening. He hopes to do some showings the old way when possible.
It’s a reminder that the pandemic and its effects added more barriers for students who were already struggling to earn a certificate or degree.
“Early on in the pandemic, I said we were going to find out how real our culture of caring was. And it was more real than I had even hoped. Every student has some kind of employee connect with them, connecting them with resources, wrapping them in love,” Lowery-Hart says, then transitions to some of the pandemic’s more upsetting aspects. “Before, they were one emergency from dropping out. Now, they are one emergency away from financial crisis.”
Like many community colleges, Amarillo College and its foundation have done as much as they can to support students in the past year, from ensuring the ARC is open (even when campus was closed) to carefully leveraging CARES Act funding to parking Wi-Fi-enabled busses in neighborhoods with poor internet connectivity.
There have been major success stories, too. Lowery-Hart says that attendance has nearly doubled for faculty office hours and mental health counseling sessions, due to each becoming virtual interactions. The food pantry order form went online, “just like the grocery stores,” which is something the college will continue after the pandemic subsides. When asked what other new methods might continue long into the future, the Amarillo College president begins to mention some options, then stops himself.
“Well, we’re in the process of finding out from our students what they want to keep and what they don’t want to do again,” he says.
For Lowery-Hart and Amarillo College, it always comes back to listening to the students.
ToGather Conversation: Emergency Aid Programs
Register now for Community College Emergency Aid Programs: Planning Beyond CARES, a joint collaboration between CASE and the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. This ToGather conversation will provide new insights on the state of emergency aid progress and ongoing needs. Amarillo College representatives will be among the panelists.
When: 1-2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8
Cost: Free, and open to both members and nonmembers, but a CASE account is required to register. To see if you have an account, or to create one, go to www.case.org/account.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is the communications manager at Harper College. He is a former content creator at CASE.