Photo courtesy of Helina K. Chin, University of California Museum of Paleontology
Carrying on a Legacy
By Lisa D. White (B.A.,’84)
For as long as I can remember, my parents, Joseph L. White (A.B., ’54; M.A., ’58) and Myrtle Escort White (attended ’51 – ’53), spoke fondly about their undergraduate years at SF State. They were first-generation college students whose families came to the Bay Area during the Great Migration of African American families from the South and other areas of the country. My father just arrived in San Francisco from Minneapolis, Minnesota, before enrolling at SF State in 1950. My mother’s family moved here from Beaumont, Texas, in the 1940s. My father said he immediately noticed my mother on campus in 1951 by the large medical books she often carried (she was a pre-nursing major). When my mother passed away in the spring of 2023 at age 89 (preceded in death by my father in 2017 at age 84), I reflected on my family’s 70-plus year history with SF State.
My parents frequently reminded me that each decade since the 1950s there’s been a White family member associated with SF State. My parents were students in the 1950s, and my father was dean of undergraduate studies and professor of Psychology in the 1960s. In response to students’ demands during the 1968 strike, my father was influential in establishing the University’s Africana Studies Department (originally known as the Black Studies Program). One of my sisters was an undergraduate musical theatre major in the 1970s, and I entered SF State shortly after her.
After studying Geology at SF State I headed to UC Santa Cruz for my Ph.D. in Earth Science. In 1990, I returned to SF State as a faculty member and stayed for 22 years. In addition to being professor of Geosciences, I was associate dean of graduate studies (2006 – 2008) and associate dean of the College of Science & Engineering (2008 – 2012). I’ve been the director of education at the Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley since 2012. Not wanting to break our family’s tradition, I happily accepted an opportunity to join the SF State Foundation Board of Directors in 2021.
My sisters and I have endowed scholarships in our parents’ names to honor their legacies. The Myrtle Escort White scholarship will support students in the newly created School of the Environment who are dedicated to public engagement and community service. After my mother completed a prenursing degree, she earned an R.N. degree from St. Francis Memorial Hospital in 1955 as one of only two African American women in her nursing school class. For decades, her nursing career in San Francisco was devoted to community service, public health and supporting and advocating for healthy families; the scholarship’s criteria reflect those values.
The Joseph L. White scholarship will be the first endowed scholarship in the Department of Africana Studies. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at SF State, in 1961 my father became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and Developmental Psychology from Michigan State University. Both a psychologist and activist, he is often recognized as the “father of Black Psychology.” The scholarship in Africana Studies will support Africana Studies majors dedicated to community engagement and public service.
It's been a powerful experience to honor our parents with endowed scholarships, giving my sisters and I another way to deeply reflect on their personal values and hopes for SF State students. With the endowed scholarships and the bequest to sustain the gifts into the future, my family’s SF State connection can extend beyond our decades of service to the University. From this support we hope new generations of students’ lives will be transformed far into the future.