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3 Things I Get Out of My HBCU Experience That You Can’t Get at a PWI

This week a video went viral of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity singing a racist chant about excluding “niggers” from their fraternity and hanging them from trees at the University of Oklahoma. The video sparked the closure of the SAE chapter on the school’s campus, protests on and off campus, and the expulsion of several students involved in the video. It also sparked a resurgence in the ever-raging debate on the pros and cons of Black students attending HBCUs and PWIs via the Twitter hashtags #SAEHatesMe and #HBCULovesMe.

For months, I’ve intended to write a blog post about my experience at Howard University but never got around to it.  But given the interest in the HBCU/PWI debate, and because high school seniors are currently in the process of deciding which college to go to, I decided that now is the perfect time to add my two cents to the conversation.

I did not want to attend Howard specifically because it was an HBCU. I assumed it lacked diversity.  I envisioned it being ghetto.  I didn’t think it reflected the real world.  But I graduate in May, and I now believe it was the best, single most important decision of my life. Howard has played a pivotal role in forming my identity, and I honestly feel indebted to this institution.

Many Black students and parents share similar concerns about the HBCU experience.  Students are often told they are too smart for HBCUs and 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 cannot get at a PWI. These are the things that changed my mind about HBCUs.

If you’re one of those doubtful people, hopefully I can convince you to join #TeamHBCU.  At the least, I hope this post better equips students to make decisions about what school will be best for them.

Here it goes.

Culturally Relevant Education

At an HBCU, you are 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, to 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 feel like I’m learning about me. Always. And I personally needed this – I had no real exposure to Black history in elementary or high school.

Now, that’s not to say we don’t learn about anything else at an HBCU – of course we do. And that’s not to say that Black students at PWIs never talk about Mike Brown and Iggy Azalea – of course they do. But they have far fewer conversations like these because there are so few spaces in which to have them, outside of the monthly Black Student Union meeting at the Black Culture Center, or whatever they call it. Frankly, they have to pick a date, time, and place to talk and learn about being Black. That’s not necessary at an HBCU.

At Howard, I feel immersed in Black ideas, Black culture, Black people. And I love 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.

Diversity

Yea, I said it. I would argue that HBCUs are more diverse than many PWIs, especially large, public state PWIs.

First, let’s talk about the demographic make up of HBCUs and PWIs. Many public state PWIs have a student body made up of around 80 to 85% White students, and 15 – 20% everybody else (students of color). Similarly, at many HBCUs, the student body is around 80 – 85% Black and the remainder is non-Black students. It’s the same demographic breakdown, except a different group is in the majority.

But at large, state PWIs, many – if not most – of the students in the majority hail exclusively from within that state. Too, many are of the same socio-economic background. This is not the case at many HBCUs. As a result, there exists a wealth of diversity on HBCU campuses that in many ways is not present on PWI campuses.

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. I have met students from all over the country – California, Texas, Georgia, New York, to Alaska and Hawaii. I marvel at the uniqueness of the cultures that exist amongst Black people in different parts of the country – from the slang they use, to the dances they do, to the music they listen to. Too, Howard has students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. There are students on this campus that grew up in the inner city and can barely afford to be here, to students whose parents are B-list celebrities and are paying for their education out of pocket, and everywhere in between. Students hail from 67 different countries. It is this breadth of backgrounds that produces the diversity of experiences that produce diversity of thought – the true end goal of diversity in an educational setting. Such diversity of thought is often lacking on campuses where the majority of students hail from the same state and went to private school in the city or grew up in the suburbs, as is the case on many PWI campuses.

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 is understood that White people can be diverse. The same must be recognized about the Black community.

Comfort/Psychological Safety

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 is 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 are Black. You don’t have to worry about “representing well.” You don’t have to worry about whether your peers think you are there only because of affirmative action, or worry about you’re 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 microagressions. 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.

Additionally, you experience with the majority of the student body a certain cultural connection, and relate to them in more ways than you would most students at a PWI. This manifests itself in ways that may 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; to 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 is 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 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, starvation is the norm.

So What?

There is something truly magical about the HBCU experience.  That is not to say that you cannot enjoy, learn and grow from a PWI experience as a Black person.  Many people do.  But it is to say that 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, simply by virtue of the fact that there are so few Black people.  Too, you will 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 on campus will last a lifetime.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun.  From the poppin’ homecomings, to the step competitions, to the 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.  Attend an HBCU college tour.  If you have questions about the rigor of the coursework or career opportunities post-HBCU graduation, talk to current students, alumni, and administrators. Do some research.  But don’t write them off for reasons as baseless as the ones I chose.  And recognize that when you stereotype HBCUs, you are stereotyping yourself.

I hope this helps.  Students, share it with your friends.  Parents, share it with other parents.  Teachers, share it with your students!

Good luck!

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He is a weekly contributor to Politic365 and an aspiring journalist.  Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

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26 thoughts on “3 Things I Get Out of My HBCU Experience That You Can’t Get at a PWI”

  1. Thank you for this article Brandon. Time and time again, my friends at my high school in Georgia are telling me that HBCUS aren’t good schools or too many black people in one space is over whelming. They don’t get why I want to go to Howard and they think it is not diverse at all. You just helped me to fully understand the ways in which HBCUs are diverse, which I didn’t understand before, and with this article, you’ve helped me to be able to explain to them the specific ways that HBCUs are diverse and I will be talking to them soon about this article. Thank you for taking your time to write it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great job young man…I see your future to be so bright! I am a teacher in Georgia, Also, I found my HBCU experience a great one also. I am a graduate of Tuskegee University. There is just something unique about HBCUs. It’s just amazing how we can all be in the same room and point one another out or even had some of the same experiences. I hope all students give it a chance. It will be life changing! I am glad Akindele found this article and gained some tools to use to help him confirm his decision.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully written. I encourage any youth, Black, white or otherwise, to explore HBCUs. They provide a truly enriching experience, in addition to, and outside of “the books”.

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  3. I got my Bachelor’s from Grambling State University and studied for my Master’s at Howard. I entered the workforce and entrepreneurship with more confidence than my friends who graduated from all white universities. Truth and fact!

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  4. I’m a proud graduate of Clark Atlanta University. I was not a number, I was an INDUCTED scholar. To stand on the quad in my white dress amongst my sisters in their white and my brothers in ties and be handed a candle for our ceremony was the beginning of my love for CAU. I still get choked up when I think about how beautiful the yard looked as the sun was setting and the candles lit the evening. Hearing my professors talk about their experiences (of things that I only heard or read about) in class was incredible. We talked freely about our own experiences in class and not worried about offending anyone. Our professors knew each one of us by name and invited many of us to family dinners. It was family…it was home.

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  5. Thank you for such insight into some of the benefits of attending an HBCU. I am a proud HBCU alumna and I will add that I really appreciated my HBCU experience more after I graduated. The networking has been awesome!!! Those who speak ill of the HBCU network are not a part of it. Without a doubt, I do not believe I would have gained the networking aspects by attending a different type of university. Also, I believe HBCU alums have a stronger sense of purpose for giving back. For instance, I volunteer a lot in my community —- church, sorority, Junior Achievement, local alumni club, home owners association, etc. When I meet other African American volunteers, the majority of them tend to be HBCU products. That’s not to say that others do not give back, I am sure they do, but I believe HBCU alums had help making it through their HBCUs and naturally want to pay it forward by giving back. Finally, within my family, I have noticed that HBCU grads remain connected to college friends and other alumni who they meet after they graduate. They seem to share a bond and not just with their particular HBCU, but with other HBCUs as well. On the other hand, those who did not attend an HBCU don’t appear to be connected to anyone from their schools within the next couple of years after graduating. Some have shared that they are jealous of the HBCU bond. Now, my family is not that large, so my observation is from a small sample size that I am sure does not apply to everyone. Overall, I believe the college experience is what you make it and HBCUs should be considered and not ruled out based on misinformation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am a soon to be graduate of Hampton University! And I don’t regret my choice at all! I agree whole heartedly. I wish there was more I could do to get more Black Students, to come to our HBCUS homes. I wrote a similar post about a month ago of all the benefits of an HBCU. THANK YOU FOR SHARING!

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  7. This article is relatively short-sighted. It makes a lot of assumptions about the black experience at PWI institutions. My experience as a black student at the University of Maryland, is far from perfect but I cherish it. The Black orgs such as the BSU, NAACP, and ethnic organizations on campus are *always* holding events to enrich that experience. Not only that, but there are plenty of classes on the black status in America and abroad in the African American Studies department that are filled. In addition, there are a plethora of classes in pretty much any department a student can take such as a French class on Francophone writers, a Comm class on Black rhetoric, or a History class on the African Diaspora. If you wish to immerse yourself in Black thought and culture, you can at a PWI institution- at half the price it costs to go to Howard I might add. I have met all manner of Black people, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, etc. I’ll admit that UMD is particularly diverse-15% of students on campus are of some sort of African descent- so it probably does not have that kind of environment at say Texas or Penn State or UCLA. However, all of us can’t go to Howard or Morehouse. If even half of us left our PWIs in a mass exodus plenty of students at those HBCUs would be looking for education elsewhere, so someone has to bite the bullet. Yes, it is hard sometimes, we actually just made national news over an email from an IFC (white fraternity) member. But our community came together to discuss it and to comfort one another. Our community on College Park’s campus may not be as relatively large as at a Florida A&M or a Clark Atlanta, but it is just as tight-knit and I’m sick of it being understated in the larger Black community, especially by people that have never experienced it for themselves. Even if you are the most popular person on campus you are not going to be friends with all 2000. All you need is a quality 150. Honestly, it’s sad that we are so torn down on social media elsewhere in the world for branching out.

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  8. Reblogged this on educationespanol and commented:
    My time at Hampton Univ. was hard. I didn’t fit in, wasn’t cute enough, wasn’t thin enough, etc. But the reality is, I’m not sure who, where, or what I’d be if I hadn’t gone to an HBCU… All my heroes, teachers, friends, looked like me, and it allowed me to no longer question me.

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  9. I experienced an HBCU and PWI….and I support what this article stated 1000%!!! Yes, there are opportunities to connect with like-hued peers at a PWI but, it pales in comparison to walk around a campus and notice that everyone looks like you. As a proud graduate of Savannah State University, I feel my education really began there….life education. I received a second degree & Masters at a PWI because of the highly regarded program of study I received my degrees in and did well but, a what expense? To observe “pockets” of black students, to feel disregarded, to feel like a very small minority because I was 1 of maybe 8 black students in my program. During my tenure at a PWI, I drew heavily from my experience from my beloved HBCU because I already understood the rules of life. The black students that I talked to did not understand why SSU was so dear to me and why I talked about it so much, why I “repped” SSU so hard and not their beloved PWI…it’s because my HBCU is family and had forged a bond with me that can never be broken; which is something I cannot say for a PWI.

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  10. You make great points, and it’s kind of obvious that you’ve only attended an HBCU, & not the PWI -yet speak on both. I am the opposite.
    Personally, I love the idea and points you made for attending an HBCU. BUT, how exactly am I challenging myself to become better by staying in an HBCU for 4 years to come back to a PWC (predominantly white country) for the rest of my life? We choose the situations and people we want to be around, so an HBCU is a great opportunity, but it’s not the only one for all black students & I wish black kids would stop shaming others for attending “PWIs”. Yes, I graduated from LSU, and was often the only black girl in my business classes…then I got over it. I have black friends I attended college with whom I’m best friends with today, and have a diverse mix of colleagues that I can say I learned from as well.
    There’s no right or wrong answer to students attending colleges, as another blogger mentioned we couldn’t all attend every HBCU. Not to mention, that would feel mighty close to segregation. We can’t also fix it to where the populations are 50/50 on every campus just yet. But we don’t even make up 50% of the country’s population..
    how can you disqualify every college merely because they don’t have the right make-up demographially?
    Race will continue to be a challenge for as long as we stand here and blog about it.

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    1. You missed the part where I said HBCUs and PWIs have similar demographic breakdowns. If a Black person attending an HBCU = self-segregation, then so does a White person attending a PWI. Why not encourage White children, then, to attend HBCUs? If you are not dong so, then you, too, are part of the problem.

      Too, would you suggest we attend schools that can do less for us simply for the sake of integration?

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  11. Stop sitting in a corner with people just like you – white black or green – we all need to open our minds meet different types of people, and learn how similar we all are – let’s become one !!
    By only being around people like us or that think the same as us we further the “us and them” mentality. We as black people have convinced ourselves that we can do better with just us – WRONG
    #alllivesmatter

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  12. As stated on BigFuture, which is College Board’s search engine for colleges and universities, here are the racial makeups of Howard University and the University of Maryland (where I am an undergraduate student currently)

    Howard University
    91% Black or African American
    1% White
    2% Asian
    1% American Indian/Alaskan Native
    4% Non-Resident Alien

    University of Maryland
    53% White
    13% Black or African American
    16% Asian
    9% Hispanic/Latino
    2% Ethnicity Unknown
    4% Two or More Races
    3% Non-Resident Alien

    heres my two cents

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