I feel like I have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, tricked, and left out. I’m an educated black woman who received her invitation to the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) family too late.
For almost seven years, I have worked for United Negro College Fund (UNCF), assisting colleges and universities execute their missions to ensure social mobility in the African American community. During this time, I have been amazed at our member institutions’ commitment and desire to see students succeed. However, I have come to realize that because I did not attend an HBCU and was not exposed to opportunities associated with the HBCU experience, my professional potential may have been hindered.
Born in Trinidad, I was not exposed to the racial divide or what it means to be black in America. Given my paternal grandfather was Chinese, my paternal grandmother was Italian, and my mother is of African descent, my racial make-up did not allow for stereotypical assumptions that lead to racial divisions. Further, growing up in a West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn, I was not exposed to discrimination commonly experienced within the African American community.
Upon my high school graduation, attending college was not on my radar, much less an HBCU. Thus, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and eventually received my master's after attending two predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Although beneficial, my experience at those institutions did not grow my ambitions; nor did it provide me the warm embracing environment HBCUs are known for – no one challenged me to dream bigger, nor supported me to reach my fullest potential.
As a student at my PWI, I was a number in a classroom pursuing a degree. I know from my current work at UNCF that if I was a student at an HBCU, I would be a member of a community breaking barriers and embracing a tradition of excellence.
Every day I partner with black institutions dedicated to ensuring America’s most vulnerable population have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to navigate a world where opposition is constant and expectations are low.
Historically under resourced, undervalued, and ostracized from traditional higher education, HBCUs have been led efforts to minimize disparities in educational outcomes for African Americans.
Students who attend and graduate from HBCUs tend to always recall that the experience was life altering. Recently, as I was talking to a group of interns about their experience at an HBCU, Cameron Edge, a junior at Morehouse College and summer intern in my office explained “my college is the only place where I see thousands of successful people that look like me.” Similarly, Cydni Burton, a senior at Spelman explained, that “regardless of how you enter an HBCU, the expectation is that you leave fully prepared and confident in your abilities to take on any challenge.”
Not so long ago, I watched a rerun of the Bionic Man. The opening lines of the show, notes that Steve Austin was not going to be the usual man and he would not have the same limitations that an ordinary man would have. The announcer said: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him, we have the technology, we have the capability to make the first bionic man, better than he was before: better; stronger; faster.”
To me, HBCUs are the institutions that are creating bionic men and women every day. They leverage all their talents and resources to ensure students are progressing toward their life’s goals. They have an innate care, concern, and compassion for their students.
Like Steve Austin, HBCUs have a mission to transform their students. Students at HBCUs are more than just numbers. They represent the opportunity that leaders of yesteryear fought and died to obtain. HBCUs have always been a part of the struggle and desire for civil rights and educational opportunity for all people. As such, these institutions take immense pride in supporting their students by fostering a culture of family, high expectations, and self-confidence.
Although historically black, HBCUs represent a diverse group of administrators, faculty, and students working together to motivate and support each other to higher heights and deeper depths. HBCUs are determined to make students better than they were before. Just like the bionic man, students are going to be better; stronger; faster.
Occasionally, I think about the person I would have become if I had an HBCU experience, but my past is my past, so I missed out.
I do, however, get to work with an organization that is building the capacity of the HBCU community to grow its impact. And through my work, I can safely say that I am part of the HBCU family.
HBCUs should be considered as a college of choice for all students of color because they have a tradition of preparing generations of leaders in the African American community. If presented with the opportunity to attend an HBCU, I urge anyone pursuing their higher education degree to deeply consider attending one of these institutions.
Don’t miss out.