For as long as I can remember, my mother told me that I had two options: college or the military. (She was by no means joking.) I chose the military.
The “options” suddenly changed to: an historically black college/ university (HBCU) or an ivy league school. So, I chose the former and more than happily packed my bags for North Carolina A&T State University. An alum of Howard University, my mother made a point to express her displeasure with my choice of HBCU and wore a bright red Howard University Alum t-shirt all over campus… including Parents Orientation, where she was summarily called out for her unfortunate wardrobe choice. (She didn’t bat an eye. Instead, she laughed and told the orientation leader a thing or two. Most likely, two.)
For the next four years, I learned everything there was to know about me and, even more, WHY the “options” changed.
Millions of other students took the four, sometimes five or six, year journey through college at the same time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 2000 and 2010, enrollment in colleges across the nation grew by 37 percent. The number of women enrolled rose by 39 percent during the same time period.
Perhaps, more relevant is the number of African-American students enrolled institutions of higher education rose from 9 percent to 14 percent between 1979 and 2010. (Check out our source)
In 2001, North Carolina A&T had more than 7,700 students during my freshmen year. It’s largest enrollment on record at the time. (Check out our source) As a D.C. native, the number of students didn’t bother me. My city’s bustling with people! What did take me for a loop was how easily I found my niche. How easy it was to find, meet, and grow with like-minded African-American students who didn’t hide their intelligence behind feigned popularity, a false sense of entitlement, or an outstanding wardrobe. (And, yes, A&T’s students had clothes, shoes, and matching handbags for days!) As Howard was to my mother and many others an educational Mecca, A&T was mine and I flourished!
A&T’s professors challenged me to be expressive and try new things with my artistic abilities. Its student organizations pushed me to get involved. The alumni, business community, and faculty spoke to every student as if they already saw the promise in us. Not to mention, our homecoming — the Greatest Homecoming on Earth (aka GHOE) — made it impossible for me not to have AGGIE PRIDE.
As amazing as I think my HBCU experience was, it is not uncommon. A 2011 study reports that HBCUs instill a sense of pride and a boost to African-American students’ self-esteem. Written by Gregory Price, William Spriggs, and Omari Swinton, the study states that, “…HBCUs in particular can be viewed as imparting more than skills to black students. An identity of high confidence and self-esteem comes particularly to mind for what HBCUs desire to impart upon its graduates. The overrepresentation of HBCU graduates in occupations that are perhaps positively correlated with high confidence/ self-esteem such as congressman, court judges, university professors and civil rights activists, suggests that HBCUs have a comparative advantage in cultivating high confidence/ self-esteem identities and self-image among black college students.” (Check out our source)
Holly Grant Jones, a guidance counselor in New York, echoes the sentiment when speaking to parents of high schoolers. “It is very empowering to find yourself in a situation where you are in the majority. All of a sudden, you are no longer a Black person, you are a person. You do not question whether or not the treatment you received and/or the grade you were given were a result of race because race becomes a non-issue, ” writes Grant. “The Black community is not limited to greatness [as just comedians, rap stars, and athletes] and this becomes abundantly clear on an HBCU campus.” (Check out our source)
Granted, I already knew greatness in other professions for African-Americans was possible but not everyone does. And, granted, I already knew that attending an HBCU would impact how I viewed myself but not everyone does.
Once I graduated, I realized just how much of an impact attending my HBCU had on me. There was, and still is, a strong sense of pride in myself, my abilities, and my alma mater.I understand that race and gender will never disappear from the psyches of the people around me and A&T prepared me to go above and beyond to dispel any preconceived notions. With age and my HBCU experience, I know going for what you truly want may not be easy but settling for what you are given is always difficult.
Everyone’s experience is different. Some good. Some bad. Some indifferent. My experience opened doors to new networks, provided career opportunities, boosted my confidence…And, has me geared up for the next GHOE.
What was your HBCU experience like?