Drexel scholarship gives more Black students ‘a seat at the table’ at Ryan

Deacon Hill

To extend the legacy of St. Katharine Drexel and expand educational opportunities for Black students in Middle Tennessee, Deacon Bill Hill founded the St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship Fund at Father Ryan High School in 2017.

“It was actually going pretty good, then COVID hit and it just kind of dried up,” said Deacon Hill, a member of the Father Ryan Class of 1967 and an alumni of the former St. Vincent de Paul School in North Nashville, founded by Mother Katharine. 

Just as she saw the need for Catholic missionaries to serve and educate Native Americans and African-Americans in the early 20th century, Deacon Hill sees the need to expand access and opportunity to Black students, Catholic or not, who want to attend Catholic schools. 

With the scholarship, “I’m trying to do a small piece” of what she did, he said.

Deacon Hill, who was recently assigned to Holy Family Church in Brentwood after serving at his lifelong parish of St. Vincent, prefers to fundraise one-on-one over lunch dates, which have not been possible in recent months. 

But he is still pressing on toward his goal of raising $150,000. “We’ve collected about $120,000,” he said. With the help of Paul Rohling, a fellow member of the Class of ’67, Deacon Hill established the scholarship with an original target of $50,000, which they quickly reached and decided they could do more. 

Father Ryan administers the scholarship, disbursing the money to students as part of their need-based financial aid packages. Some current students have already benefited from the scholarships. 

Deacon Hill is looking to build the endowment for the St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship at a time when Father Ryan is engaged in an intentional process of creating a more inclusive environment for its Black students.

Over the summer, as the country reckoned with its history of racism, Father Ryan also began reckoning with how Black students have been treated at the school. 

“There are some wounds there,” Deacon Hill said. 

In a letter to the Father Ryan community over the summer, President Jim McIntyre and Principal Paul Davis wrote, “Our community recognizes that we need to look at our school and ourselves to make sure we demonstrate an inclusive environment for Black students and other students of color. The Father Ryan community, in collaboration with the Diocese of Nashville and its leadership, is committed to doing the work necessary to make this initiative a reality.”

To help achieve this goal, Father Ryan and Pope John Paul II High School have hired Derek Young, a nationally recognized consultant on diversity and inclusion, to lead a review of the cultures of the schools and develop an action plan to improve them.

Deacon Hill has been involved in the conversation with Young and Father Ryan alumni and parents from the Black community who are working to create a more inclusive environment at the school. 

“I’m looking for positive steps to do … to make things better for folks,” said Deacon Hill. 

Opening up the opportunity to more Black students through the scholarship is the first step. But students of color coming into the school need to be assured they will be welcome there. “How do we make people feel a part of the Father Ryan community?” Deacon Hill said. 

Some ideas that he and others have floated are strengthening the Black alumni network of Father Ryan and supporting student and parent mentors for students of color.

While Deacon Hill is quick to praise the academic education that he received at Father Ryan, he’s also quick to point out how hard it is for Black and White students to truly know each other. “At 3:00 if you go to Belle Meade, and I go to North Nashville … how do you get to know me? You need that interaction after school.”

Mother Katharine Drexel

Deacon Hill appreciates the steps Father Ryan is taking to create a more inclusive environment, but he knows the culture won’t transform overnight.

“My goal is not to solve all the problems at Ryan regarding racism, but to shine a little light in a dark room,” said Deacon Hill. “In my opinion the Drexel scholarship does that by helping Black students financially and letting folks know we care.”

“If you want the environment to change, you have to have a seat at the table,” Deacon Hill said. And the scholarship is all about creating more seats at the table.

On the occasion of his 50th high school reunion in 2017, Deacon Hill reconnected with old classmates, some that he didn’t know very well all those years ago. Before the pandemic, he joined them for breakfast about once a month. “When you sit down and break bread together, you get to know each other better,” he said. 

Members of that group have been some of the earliest and most generous supporters of the St. Katharine Drexel Scholarship, Deacon Hill added. 

He wants to see current Father Ryan students, Black and White, sit at the table together and really get to know each other, “and not wait 50 years to do it,” he said.

Deacon Hill has observed that Black Catholic and non-Catholic students “can get a good education in a whole lot of other places” in Nashville now, but he hopes that the St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship at Father Ryan can help recruit more Black students to the school and “help people experience what I experienced,” a solid education rooted in faith. 

For more information about the scholarship or to donate, contact Deacon Hill at whill10000@comcast.net or 615-496-5797, or contact the Father Ryan High School Advancement Office at 615-269-7926.