During Black History Month, I was asked by a high school student to describe my experience attending an HBCU, a historically Black College and University. It was indeed a seminal experience, but it had been some time since I really tried to put into words just what it meant to me and I appreciated this opportunity to do so. Attending Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically black college, had a remarkable impact on my life. From the first day I landed on campus, and walked on the quad among the historic buildings, I felt a spirit of hope and great expectation from the elders — that I would make the most of this opportunity and be excellent. Of course, there was the hope from my parents, that I would make sure to achieve all of my greatness in four years; and I did!
Cheyney was small; about 2,600 students, including commuters. There was an opportunity to get to know a lot of people from around the country and a few international students, but still not so diminutive that I knew EVERYbody. The majority of enrolled students were African-American and African, with most of us staying in on-campus housing. While some African-American students commuted to school each day, there were a fair number of Caucasian and other groups as well. There was definitely a sense of family among those who stayed on campus. We celebrated our sports teams, enjoyed parties, played intramural sports and occasionally commiserated about such slights as not getting seconds on ‘Steak Night’, swiped pizza deliveries, or long waits in the laundry room. We also felt close to the employees who worked on campus, including residence hall deans, campus security, and even the cafeteria staff. We felt very secure knowing there were a lot of folks looking out for us. I think that is unique among smaller HBCUs.
Another aspect of my time at Cheyney that I really appreciated was the genuine investment professors felt in our success. Throughout my education, I had definitely seen educators who were passionate about their expertise and enjoyed imparting their knowledge to students. However, at HBCUs it seems that there is an extra sense of obligation that professors feel to ensure students learn the content and are able to apply it. They were counting on us to take the baton and run with it. By no means did they lower their standards for us. In fact, they were very frank about what we would face out in the world if we were not at the top of our game, but there was an extra level of care and concern about us doing well. To be honest, my experience was the same with professors who were not African-American. I can’t speak for today, but I think back then, if you decided to teach at an HBCU, you really needed to buy into the culture, no matter your race or ethnicity.
On the topic of race and ethnicity, I cannot overstate what it meant to have so many African American scholars and administrators as role models on our campus. I attended public school in Washington, DC, so being taught by smart educators who looked like me was not a novel experience for me. Still, it was inspiring to see people of color in teaching positions across disciplines including the humanities, mathematics, sciences, industrial arts, education, etc. There were career academics as well as professors who infused their curricula with insights gleaned from previous careers in the corporate space as well as public service.
Professors’ engagement with students extended outside the classroom with them showing up at sporting events and extracurricular activities which I’m sure happens at a lot of colleges. However, I found that our professors cared about our well-being, overall, including social, emotional and spiritual like elders in our family or community. They had no problem pulling you aside to let you know if they thought you were doing less than your best in class or were not carrying yourself with honor and decorum. One Wharton-trained professor told me I wasn’t exactly ‘rockin’ Accounting, and that I had better come to her office and get a handle on it. And you know I did! Seriously, I never planned to be a ‘star accountant’, but putting in that extra effort provided a baseline of familiarity that helped when I got to graduate business school. Caring about us outside of class also meant that they kept us in mind when they learned of jobs, fellowships, or other opportunities that might enhance our learning experience. I had a professor ask me to deliver her speech at a campus-wide event when she fell ill. That awakened a love of public speaking in me.
Finally, attending an HBCU left me with a large collection of brothers and sisters. We have formed strong bonds across graduating classes, Greek organizations, industries, etc. We celebrate each other’s successes, band together in times of need, support each other’s businesses and lend a hand to each other’s children. Homecoming is truly a family reunion at Cheyney. I attended a large, predominately white institution (PWI) for graduate school and I don’t have the same feeling though I did make good friends, and certainly appreciate the education I received there. I hear this sentiment from others who attended predominately white institutions. There are exceptions, but in many cases, the number and intensity of the connections among African American students, just don’t compare. In the end, I believe everything I have described comes back to family. I was a pretty good student and I could have made the most of just about any environment to earn my education; however, I am certain I walked away with something extra having attended an HBCU.