How The Women Of ‘A Different World’ Helped Me Cope With Graduating During A Pandemic
After COVID prematurely ended my college career, four characters on my favorite show taught me how to move forward.
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It doesn’t matter my age, I have always thrived with normalcy and routine.
Every night growing up, I looked forward to when Nickelodeon would switch over to Nick at Nite. The nighttime programming block was an opportunity for Gen Z-ers and millennials alike to jump back in time and experience some of America’s canon of sitcoms. In this lineup, the show that stood out to me the most was A Different World.
Even though I was watching more than a decade after A Different World last aired, and I was nowhere near college age, the show still resonated with me in a way that no other shows on that channel did. In the midst of a lineup that was populated by unapologetically white sitcoms like Full House, A Different World stuck out. It was about people like me — young, Black kids with big dreams.
I was nine years old then, and even at that point in my adolescence, I recognized that there was something subversive about a show that followed the lives of a group of Black college students hailing from different economic backgrounds who all came together at Hillman College, a fictional historically Black college in Virginia. Throughout its six-season run, the students found their way through early adulthood by tackling day-to-day issues like academics, finances and love against the backdrop of pivotal moments in 20th century American history, like the AIDS crisis and the Rodney King riots — which were, respectively, the focus of arguably two of the series’ most notable episodes.
While the first season struggled to find its footing, the show really took off when Debbie Allen stepped in to produce. The show soon carved out its place in television’s history, of course, but most importantly, it imprinted on a generation of viewers’ hearts, like mine.
It’s been almost 30 years since A Different World went off the air, and more than a decade since I discovered the show on the floor of my family’s living room, well before I really knew what exactly I was seeing. Now more than ever, I feel the relevancy and influence of this show about young adults coming of age and navigating life’s unexpected turns with the help of a village beside them.
On college campuses the week after spring break, every conversation you overhear is full of murmurs about what everyone did over the week off — what beaches they got sunburnt at, what TV shows they binged, how annoyed they are that they had to pick up extra shifts at their part-time job instead of relaxing. But this year was different. As I walked through common areas on my college campus, the conversations I overheard were all about coronavirus. A name that I’d never heard before then, but had somehow become the subject of every major headline in the news, seemingly overnight.
Before cases were officially declared in my school’s county, we began hearing whispers that in-person classes might be suspended for a few weeks. At the time, only the most dramatic people thought it would last until the end of the year. It only took a few days after that for the pandemic to hit my small college town in northeastern Indiana, and two days more for our state to see the first death.
It happened so quickly, and so drastically, I was shaken. One of the evenings that week, I was directing a short film with my friends in the lobby of our media and communications building. By that point, I had already started taking precautions. I wasn’t leaving home without latex gloves and a travel-size hand sanitizer. I tried not to let the thought cross my mind that this might be the beginning of doing a lot of things for the last time.
I approached this shoot as just another school project to finish before I needed to turn all my focus to passing midterms. The set was the perfect balance between light and airy, like so many that I had worked on in college. Time in between takes was spent rewording jokes so they would snap, adjusting lights to get the correct color temperature and aligning our cameras carefully for the ideal framing. I was surrounded by the people that I’d grown to associate with the best parts of college, doing the thing that we loved to do. Everything was as it usually was: perfect in the way the simple fact of normalcy is perfect.
Right before I was ready to call a wrap on the project, our phones all buzzed with an email from the university. The set went quiet. We looked at our phones and then at one another. This wasn’t just the wrap on our film. This would be the wrap on college as we knew it.
After the university had made the official decision that, to help slow the spread of the virus, in-person classes would be suspended. Slowly but surely the vibrant campus that was once the setting to some of my most colorful stories thinned out, leaving a ghost town. By the end of that week, for the few of us who hadn’t fled to our hometowns yet, it was odd.
We scrambled to say our goodbyes from six feet apart. We attempted to tie up loose ends in group chats and over FaceTime calls instead of over finals all-nighters in the library and wrap parties in our friends’ house. We added new words like “social distancing” and “self-isolating” to our daily vocabulary. We talked less, and when we did speak, our words carried a type of grief we’d never spoken to each other with before.
The news headlines were a constant reminder of the changing world: The NBA suspends its season. A slew of celebrities tests positive. TV shows halt production. Disney World closes.
I didn’t know what was next, but I knew that moments like these were fleeting. I took a video of my friends at our final family dinner on Snapchat and saved it on my phone because I didn’t want to forget any of it — the campus that had become my very own Hillman College, and the friends who had become my cast of colorful characters. It was like the penultimate episode of your favorite show: you know the story has run its course, but you love the world it’s set in so much that you don’t want it to end.
The final weeks of college that I thought would be occupied with emotional goodbyes to my friends and mentors, decorating graduation caps for commencement, applying for jobs, packing up my apartment with my roommates and divvying up our collection of plastic cups we had accumulated from far too many take out orders from the local pizzeria became sitting in my childhood bedroom attempting not to cry while logged onto my online classes and trying to manage my newfound anxiety during 40-minute Zoom calls. I was sad and hurt and confused, wondering just how it was possible that college could be over, and in such an unprecedented fashion. The world had changed, and I was struggling to catch up.
Early on in quarantine, I had already run out of shows to watch. There were plenty of options, sure, but none that gave me the escape I needed. I found myself returning to A Different World on a whim. It didn’t take long before I saw in each episode a parallel to the life I found myself settling into: entering a stage of life where things were changing too rapidly for me to find my bearings. As I watched the women characters in the earlier seasons all grappling with finding their place at Hillman, I was doing the same, just in my new, not-quite-post-college life.
The conditions were a bit different, but the core of our struggle seemed to be the same. I was supposed to be gaining complete independence, preparing to succeed in the big bad world on my own, but that wasn’t the case. Meanwhile, on screen, I saw Whitley make a name for herself on campus, swerving away from the privilege of the silver spoon that her family’s Hillman legacy had handed her and rising above what is easy. I saw Jaleesa rebuild herself in the wake of a rocky divorce. I saw Freddie push back against a world that told her to be silent. I saw Kim work to define her convictions and stand in them. Watching the show in this moment, amid a pandemic and a looming recession, pushed me to think about all of the characters in a new light. But it was the women of Hillman, with their boldness and their vulnerability and their strength in the face of their setbacks and heartbreaks, that gave me a blueprint for how to move forward during my own upheaval.
The women of A Different World were the definition of cool. Every episode, they appeared on screen with fashion-forward clothes. They weren’t afraid to speak their mind even — and especially — when people urged them not to. They took agency over their bodies and lives when it came to discussions about everything ranging from sex and a woman’s right to choose to misogyny and interracial dating.
Whitely Gilbert was the "It Girl" of Hillman, who eventually blossomed into a loving, savvy and at times over-protective friend to the rest of the gang. Then there was Kimberly Reese, the brainiac, who stood firm on the courage of her convictions when making tough choices. Winifred “Freddie” Brooks was the resident activist, a free spirit constantly looking for new opportunities to stand up against injustices in the world or on campus. Jaleesa Vinson was like the cool and wiser older sister, who guided the other girls and didn’t give in during tough times.
The female characters on this show come together and help each other up proverbial hills and out of the valleys of life. In one of my favorite episodes of the series, Kim pledges a fictional NPHC sorority that Whitely is already a member of. Whitely, desperately wanting her best friend to be her sister, falls into a power trip in her new position as the dean of pledges. Like usual, this leads Whitley to push Kim to be more like her. All the while, Freddie pushes her two-cents of criticism on Greekdom. Jaleesa, being the guidepost and mediator between the women on that show as she is, steps in and reminds Whitely of the respect she owes her friends. Like in many other story lines, in the midst of conflict and unforeseen troubles, these four women use their individual strengths to interpret what sisterhood means.
They were the big sisters we could all aspire to be. They were living proof of what so many of us already knew to be true: in a world where Black women are constantly overlooked, overworked and our backs forced against the wall, nevertheless we persist. They offered a picture of resilience in a world and under conditions that often threatened to silence them — to derail the things they’d worked so hard to achieve. But past that, they illuminated the need for a support system—for a community that can rally behind you and hold you up in times of crisis.
With the help of their support system, the strength of other Black women, they were able to get through it all.
During the time of this quarantine, I took the lessons from A Different World and leaned on the Black women around me — my sisters, my mother, my grandmother — to get through the tough days. And as Black women do, they lifted me up. With kindness and grace they hit me with tough love when needed, a shoulder to cry on or a reminder that through it all you are protected even when the world is giving signs that you aren’t.
This spring wasn’t what I had ever imagined my senior year to be, but what do you do when the world places what seem like insurmountable barriers in front of you?
You push forward with the steadfast nature of Kimberly.
You stand up to them with the self-assured personality of Whitely.
You resist them with the assertive spirit of Freddie.
And if all else fails, you pick yourself up and you try it again, like Jaleesa.
Life during COVID is a different world — no pun intended. Almost every part of our daily lives needed to be adjusted. I don’t know what the future will be like, but like the women of Hillman, I know that with the help of my community I will withstand it all. And once it’s over, when the world goes back to its new normal, I will be stronger than I was before.
Before I made my hasty retreat from town — I didn’t even clear out my apartment, simply packed the essentials and went back to my parents’ place — I had to wrap up an assignment on campus. The day was appropriately gloomy and overcast. The green spaces that live in between the academic buildings and residence halls that used to bustle with students playing frisbee or lying out in the sun hammocking and talking were nearly deserted.
I passed through the quad on my way to my car. This is where our graduation would have been held. I could picture it all then: the grassy knoll where my mom would have cried happy tears when I stood up with the rest of my class and slid the 2020 tassel from right to left. The sidewalk that surrounds it where my friends and I would have taken selfies as we lined up before the ceremony. The stairs that lead up to the fine arts building where the stage would have been, where I would have walked across and held my shiny red folder containing my degree.
Like every other college student in America, I went back home and started online classes soon after that moment. I don’t think it’s too on-the-nose to say that I felt like those overcast clouds followed me back home that day. From that point forward, every move I made was pointed towards the virus: Is it safe to eat this? Is it safe to go here? Can I hug my mom?
Months later, I’m still trying to find that normal, and I don’t know that I ever will. I’ve slowly but surely started to reintegrate into the world — with a mask and gloves, of course. I’ve tried to find a new daily routine and hobbies I can do at home, and I have begun to attempt to figure out my next steps in life. But there is something in the power and fortitude of the Black women around me that sustains me, that tells me that even when it's overcast, there are rays of light fighting to break through. But I have to look up and notice them.
The day I went back to my college town to pack up my apartment for good, the weather was cloudy once more — the type of Midwestern day where rain feels inevitable, though you hope it won’t come. I’d been home for a few weeks and had consumed my fill of A Different World. I hadn’t suddenly become more positive or hopeful about the state of things, but I had a different context than I had weeks prior.
The motto for Hillman College is Deus Nondum Te Confecit: God is Not Yet Finished. As I packed up my car, shoving three years’ worth of my life into the back of my Chevy Cobalt — the rays of sunlight above just barely managing to fight their way through — I held tight to the Hillman ethos once more. Things were not what I expected, not what I wanted, but there could be light still.
In moments of struggle, I can look to the Black women standing beside me and know one inalienable truth: by God, we are not yet finished.