As a high school senior living in the south suburbs of the Pacific Northwest, I had no idea what an HBCU was.
My high school didn't have many African-American students, so when time came to start looking at colleges, naturally, I ended up looking the same schools as my white friends.
I didn’t have a choice on whether or not I wanted to go to college. I was going. Where I wanted to attend was the only choice my mom left to me. But when my mother took a look at the universities I singled out, she quickly intervened. Saying:
“Ashley, you’re going to an HBCU. Make a new list.”
I was so confused. An H-B what? It was the first time I’d ever heard of one. So I did what any other uninformed millennial would do. I Googled it.
Later I learned that my mother was accepted into Howard University -- a prestigious D.C university that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the Mecca of black schools -- however, an unplanned pregnancy altered her plans and she enrolled at a college closer to home. From then on she was determined that my sister and I had the HBCU experience she never could.
Because I grew up in the suburbs of Tacoma, Washington, I never attended a predominantly African-American school, so my mom knew there was some acclimating I needed to do. Luckily, my older sister was attending Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina, during my senior year. My mother made it a point for me to go and visit during my spring break so that I could get a feel of what an HBCU campus was like.
And those spring break visits to my sister were everything. I felt like I had been living in black and white and something switched me over to color. Everywhere I looked there were black people. Students, professors, and university staff -- I had never seen such a diverse and beautiful pool of melanin before. But more than that, for the first time in my educational career I felt like I belonged. I didn’t stand out. I was used to being the only black student in class or a part of a small handful. I used to think my skin as the feature that made me unique and noticeable, but that was no longer the case at an HBCU.
The entire experience felt like being at home. For starters, the food in the cafeteria was like what my mom made at home. Soul food was my absolute favorite so seeing things like fried chicken, bbq ribs, and fried fish on the menu was a shocking delight. Although I had already been introduced to the concept of Greek life from my family, I saw it flourish on that campus. There were fraternities and sororities stepping and putting on these mesmerizing shows in the middle of the yard. I attended my first battle of the bands and realized that Drumline wasn’t just a movie, it was real life and it was happening right before my eyes. I sat in on lectures on topics I didn’t even know you could study like African-American Diaspora and the History of Blacks in Media. Everyone interacted like family instead of perfect strangers who just happened to be in the same space.
There was a strong sense of togetherness, cultural pride, and achievement. I couldn’t get enough. The week I spent visiting my sister in Charlotte made it clear to me that I wanted my own HBCU experience too.
As soon as I got home I made a new college list consisting of nothing but HBCUs. Ultimately, I got accepted to and attended North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. I was nervous about going so far from home but I just kept thinking of all the things I had fallen in love with on my sister’s campus, and eventually my eagerness to got me to overcame my fears.
In the end, it was the best decision I’ve made to date. At NCCU existence and performance as a student wasn’t centered on the fact that I was black. Finally, my academic achievements, character, and drive were the things people paid attention to when they saw me, not just my skin.
I grew up there. I discovered who I was and what made me proud of my culture. I built relationships with professors and students alike who helped prepare me for professional success. I learned that there is value and a great feeling of empowerment from being in a space where everyone is equal and striving to achieve the same goals. So I wouldn’t trade the experience I had at my HBCU for anything in the world.