50th Anniversary of Project 500: "Blessed to Have this Opportunity"

by Tom Hanlon  /   Dec 12, 2018

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Growing up in West Philadelphia, Roslyn Hunt always knew she wanted to be a teacher. With some help from the Special Educational Opportunities Program, a program birthed on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus in 1968, that’s what she became.

Hunt was one of 565 African-American or Latino students who enrolled at Illinois in the fall of 1968, thanks to the recruiting program the university created to enroll students who were traditionally underrepresented.

Project 500, as it was informally known, significantly increased the number of African-American students on campus; the previous year, only 372 of the university’s 30,400 students were black—1.2 percent. (For comparison’s sake, in the 2017-18 academic year, 2,499 black students, or 5.2 percent of the student population, were enrolled.)

In late September 2018, Hunt and her fellow Project 500 classmates returned to campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program. It was held the same weekend as her high school 50-year reunion, but Hunt chose to return to the university.

“It was great,” says Hunt, who retired in 2013 after 39 years of teaching in elementary schools, primarily 4th grade. “I enjoyed coming back. We toured around campus on golf carts. Everything is so built up. When we were in school, there was hardly any bus service, so we walked everywhere. Now students get on the bus to go to class.”

Roslyn Hunt stands next to a poster at Project 500 GalaThe three-day celebration included a welcome reception the first evening, a Krannert concert the second evening, and panel discussions about Project 500 the final day, followed by a gala dinner at the I-Hotel.

“I enjoyed every minute of it. I got to see some people I hadn’t seen in quite a while, including people I taught with at Carrie Busey,” says Hunt, who taught for 16 years in Champaign (she also taught at Robeson Elementary) before moving to Indianapolis with her husband, where she taught for 23 years.

Hunt’s experience at the University of Illinois was certainly different from her time in West Philadelphia schools. Her high school had just a handful of white students, she says. On campus at Illinois, she was clearly one of a minority, even with the relative influx of Project 500 students.

“That never bothered me, though,” she says. “I always felt welcome on campus. I have very pleasant memories of my time here. I didn’t know a single soul when I came here, but I never felt scared or anything. I knew what I wanted to accomplish. And I knew God was with me.”

Hunt lived in a triple on Lincoln Avenue Residence Halls and knew of some students who didn’t have housing when they came to campus—some of whom ended up leaving school. Far from her West Philly environs, Hunt made friends in Champaign-Urbana, a few of whom brought her home with them on Thanksgiving breaks or other weekends.

“I made many lifelong friends here,” she says. “We’ve kept in touch.”

She also met her husband, Billy; they have been married 47 years.

Hunt recalls her time in the College of Education with appreciation and fondness. She took an education policies class from a young instructor named Jim Anderson—now dean of the College. “He was a caring and knowledgeable instructor,” she says. “He knew his material. I remember him as pretty easy-going and laid back. I really enjoyed his class.”

Her experience in the College of Education also opened doors for her that otherwise would not have been open.

“The College has a great education program,” she says. “And they did a good thing in giving people—capable, intelligent young people—the opportunity they needed. We didn’t want a handout. We wanted a hand up, and that’s what we got.

“Project 500 helped me reach my goal of becoming a teacher. I was blessed to have this opportunity.”

Hunt returned to campus to work on her master’s degree in education, which she earned in 1979. She still returns occasionally to Champaign, as she has friends in town as well as her daughter and grandchildren. Her retirement allows her time to travel to Columbus, Ohio, as well, to see her son and his family.

“We travel, see family, I do voluntary work, go the gym,” Hunt says. “I stay pretty active. I’m active in our church, and I taught at a Bible college for a year. And I’ve taught Sunday school for a long time—even though I retired, I’m still teaching!”

It’s what she always wanted to be. And it’s what she always has been.