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Tampa educator to receive national human and civil rights award

WASHINGTON - June 24, 2009 -

The National Education Association will honor Tampa educator, Dr. Walter L. Smith, with the Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award during its annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner in San Diego, Calif., on July 2, 2009.

Dr. Smith will receive the NEA award as a result of his extensive work to bring educational opportunities and leadership to Africa, as well as his longtime work with historically Black colleges and universities in the United States.

Walter Smith was a high school dropout who would eventually become president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla. After earning a G.E.D. diploma, he went on to earn an A.A. degree from Gibbs Community College in St. Petersburg, Fla. He eventually enrolled in Florida A&M University and earned a B.S. in biology and chemistry.

IBM recruited Smith for a job at the NASA Space Center at Cape Kennedy where he realized a large underrepresentation of African Americans. From that realization he was inspired to campaign IBM for a technical program that would prepare African American youth for engineering positions with the space program.

Ultimately Smith would earn a Ph.D. from Florida State University. He spent three years as president of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts before returning to Florida A&M as president in 1977.

At Florida A&M, Dr. Smith established  programs in technology and media. Working with faculty and staff at crosstown Florida State University, he founded a new School of Engineering. After eight years, Dr. Smith left the post of president but remained at Florida A&M as professor of education administration and director of multicultural education. 

Dr. Smith had always been interested in educational opportunities in Africa. It was his new position as director of multicultural education that allowed him to turn an interest into an avocation.

Dr. Smith went to South Africa as a USAID international team leader charged with helping the country’s education institutions develop leadership schools as the country moved from apartheid to universal suffrage.

 Dr. Smith’s time in Africa included a stint as a Fulbright Fellow and professor at the University of Malawi. He became the founding rector of FUNDA Community College in South Africa in 1994, a role that solidified his acclaim as “father of the community college movement in South Africa.”

He wrote The Magnificent Twelve: Florida’s Black Junior Colleges, which helped spur the commemorative reclamation of two-year colleges in Florida and a nationwide appreciation of the real value of community colleges.

Since 1995, Dr. Smith has been a visiting professor and graduate coordinator in the University of Florida’s Department of Educational Leadership. In 2008, he helped create The Congress for Task Forces Against Slavery, Ethnic Cleansing, and Genocide in Africa.

“Dr. Walter Smith is indeed an inspiration,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “From dropping out of high school to becoming one of the world’s premier advocates for the community college model in higher education systems, his life and his life’s work remind us that if the tools and resources are there, every student can realize academic success and succeed in life.”

NEA presents the Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award to an NEA member, NEA local affiliate, and/or NEA state affiliate whose activities in education contribute to international understanding and motivate youth to work for world peace. Irmamae Applegate, who served as 1966–67 NEA president, was a member of the Executive Committee of the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession (now “Education International”). Sidney Dorros was the staff consultant to the NEA Bicentennial Committee.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional organization, representing
3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT:  Stacey Grissom  (202) 822-7823,