Dillard University in New Orleans is one of the smallest historically black colleges (HBCUs) in the U.S. The college is proud of a huge accomplishment: pound for pound, it graduates more physics majors — and, notably, more female physics majors — than far bigger schools with more resources.

With an enrollment of 1,200, Dillard ranks second in the country in black physics undergrads.

The point was highlighted at Dillard's recent graduation ceremony featuring a keynote address from actress and singer Janelle Monae, who was one of the stars of "Hidden Figures." The award-winning film tells the story of the black women scientists who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1961. These women fought racist Jim Crow laws, while doing essential mathematical calculations for America's space program. "To see that we have this significant number of women representing (science and math) in the way that they are is a blessing to America and our future," Monae told The Associated Press in an interview before the graduation ceremony.

Out of the top 10 physics departments in the country, the nine which produce the most African-American undergraduates in physics are at HBCUs, according to the American Institute of Physics. This figure takes into account both predominantly black and predominantly white schools. The top producing school is Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU that has nearly twice as many students as Dillard.

"They're taking a chance on these young women," Gasman said. She is director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority-Serving Institutions and author of a forthcoming book on HBCUs and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. She says Dillard doesn't just admit people who they believe are perfect, but people who have potential. She says "they work with them to discover this talent."

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