I assumed it lacked diversity. I envisioned it being ghetto. I didn't think it reflected the real world. But I graduated in May and I now believe it was the best, single most important decision of my life. Howard played a pivotal role in forming my identity, and I truly feel indebted to the institution.
Many black students and parents share similar concerns about the HBCU experience. Students are often told they're too smart for HBCUs and are steered away from them by their parents or school counselors. So, I want to debunk some of the myths about HBCUs and talk about the three most important things I got out of my four years at Howard that black students simply can't get at a predominately white institution (PWI). Hopefully, this post better equips students to make decisions about what school will be best for them.
These are the things that changed my mind about HBCUs:
Culturally Relevant Education
At an HBCU, you're always learning things that are relevant to your identity as a Black American, inside and outside of the classroom. From discussing African American and continental African history and talking about current events that are relevant to the Black American experience, to holding conversations with my peers about colorism or the appropriation of Black culture by white artists, I always felt like I was learning about me. And I personally needed this – I had no real exposure to Black history in elementary or high school.
Now, that’s not to say HBCU students don’t learn about anything else – of course they do. And it’s not to say that Black students at PWIs never talk about Freddie Gray or Miley Cyrus – of course they do. But the reality is there are far fewer spaces in which to have those conversations on PWI campuses outside of the monthly Black Student Union meeting or event at the Black Culture Center. At an HBCU, it’s not necessary to pick a date, time and place to learn about being Black.
At Howard, I felt immersed in Black ideas, Black culture and Black people. And I loved it. It’s necessary. It’s the reason why Black students at PWIs have Black Student Unions in the first place — there is value in blackness and Black spaces. At an HBCU, you don’t need a Black Culture Center or a club – the entire campus is both. The entire campus is a safe space that caters to you.
Before attending Howard, I hesitated to apply to HBCUs because I wanted “diversity” and I didn’t think I would find it at an HBCU. I was wrong. Black people are incredibly diverse, and at Howard I was introduced for the first time to the diversity of blackness. I met students from all over the country – California, Texas, Georgia, New York, even Alaska and Hawaii. I marveled at the uniqueness of the cultures that exist amongst Black people in different parts of the country – such as the slang they use, the dances they invent and the music they listen to. Also, Howard has students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. There were students on campus that grew up in the inner city and could barely afford to be there alongside students whose parents are B-list celebrities and were paying for their education out of pocket (and everyone in between).
Students hailed from 67 different countries – from Haiti to Honduras to Nigeria. This breadth of backgrounds produces the diversity of experiences that produces diversity of thought – the true end goal of diversity in a collegiate setting. Such diversity of thought can be lacking on PWI campuses, especially large state PWIs where the majority of students hail from the same state and often from similar economic backgrounds.
Frankly, the idea that HBCU campuses are not diverse stems from the notion that Black people themselves are not diverse – that we all think and act the same. Students look to PWIs specifically seeking diversity, despite the fact that most students are white. It's understood that white people can be diverse. The same must be recognized about the Black community.
At an HBCU, you are in the numerical majority. This allows you to achieve a level of comfort with yourself and with the people around you that's not possible when you are one of 150 Black kids out of 2,000 students at a PWI.
For one, the burden of representation and the threat of racial stereotyping are non-existent. You don’t have to worry about whether people are going to think this about you or that about you because you're Black. You don’t have to worry about “representing well.” You don’t have to worry about whether your peers think you're there only because of affirmative action or worry about your opinions, experiences and contributions to discussions being devalued because “of course you think that, you’re Black.” You won’t experience overt racism or constant racial microaggressions nearly as often. You can be yourself and be at ease with the knowledge that your presence is valued, your opinions are respected and appreciated, and that excellence is assumed of you, no less than. You don’t have to feel like you must prove anything to anybody.
Furthermore, you experience a certain cultural connection with the majority of the student body and relate to them in more ways than you would most students at a PWI. This manifests itself in ways that might seem insignificant until you are in an environment completely void of all of them at once. That means things like people understanding the slang you use, being familiar with classic songs by Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, and having the rhythm to join you when your song comes on and it’s time to hit the latest dance. Too, Black people interact with each other differently amongst themselves than they do in mixed company. That's a reality.
Being in an environment in which you feel comfortable is critical to the college experience. After all, the campus you choose will be your home for four years. People often want to learn from being outside of their comfort zone, but there's a difference between being forced outside of your comfort zone on occasion and learning from that experience and never, ever being comfortable at all. The former can occur on an HBCU campus. By contrast, four years is a long time to be uncomfortable in your own home. The kind of comfort and connection achieved at an HBCU allows for an honesty and an openness with your peers that enables you to explore and learn about yourself and from others at a greater depth than is possible in an environment in which you feel alienated — or worse, rejected.
Too, it facilitates the development of a groundedness in your blackness and a confidence necessary for navigating the rest of the largely white world in professional spaces and elsewhere.
At an HBCU, you never feel starved for blackness. At a PWI, that starvation is the norm.
There's something truly magical about the HBCU experience.
Undoubtedly, many Black students enjoy, learn and grow from their experience at PWIs. But the cultural climate at an HBCU — being surrounded by Black people just as beautiful, brilliant and driven as you are — can do things for your personal growth and development as a Black person that a PWI cannot. You'll be pleasantly surprised, if not proven right, by the diversity on campus. You're an interesting person. Other Black people are just as unique and interesting as you are. And the friendships you forge with them will last a lifetime.
Plus, it's a lot of fun! From the poppin' homecomings to the step competitions and parties, Black people know how to turn up. Attending an HBCU is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. It's not one you want to miss out on.
I strongly urge Black high school students to apply to and consider attending HBCUs. Visit a campus. Do some research. If you have questions about the rigor of the coursework or career opportunities post-HBCU graduation, talk to current students, alumni and administrators. But don't write them off for reasons as baseless as the ones I had. And recognize that when you stereotype HBCUs, you're stereotyping yourself.
HBCUs are facing many challenges managing coronavirus responses and need your support. Donate to the UNCF fund today to help students impacted by the pandemic.