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World & Nation

We asked for your experiences at historically black colleges. These are your stories

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Top row, from left: Gail Martin-Matthews now and at graduation, Christopher Sumlin, Kamisha Morrison, Shondace Thomas and Derrick L. McMahon Jr. Bottom row, from left: Tyia Hollis, Ashley Johnson, Christopher Parker, Ron Vample (center), Cynthia Benin Lemus and Corinne Amany.
(Courtesy)

They are found as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, but a majority of the more than 100 historically black colleges and universities nationwide are concentrated in the South. We asked to hear about people’s experiences at HBCUs. Here are some of those stories:

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Johnson studies sociology at Harris Stowe State University in St. Louis.
(Ashley Johnson)

Ashley Johnson, 20

Harris Stowe State University, Class of 2021

I am mixed race, black and Puerto Rican. My experience at an HBCU has been interesting. Some days I like it. Some days I don’t. I like it because it is affordable and they don’t judge you based off of one test. I also like it because it’s more easygoing and the small classes make it easier to focus. You also have a more personal relationship with your teacher, so that makes it better. I don’t like that it is small because I have had some drama. I also get judged because of the color of my skin — like I’m not black enough. I feel like I have learned a lot from attending my school and overall I do enjoy it.

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Amany works as a property manager in Los Angeles.
(Corinne Amany)

Corinne Amany, 42

Spelman College, Class of 1999

My Mother is African American (from Washington, D.C.) and Dad is from West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire). I went to an American high school in Cote d’Ivoire. I chose Spelman because my mother attended an HBCU and, having grown up abroad, I wanted to experience a predominantly black institution.

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My experience at Spelman prepared me, as a woman and a black woman, to face the world. We were taught about black American history and the diaspora. We had engaging conversations about the world’s perception of us in the media, colorism and the “angry black woman” stigma. Spelman taught me how to properly sit in interviews [and] even how to smile. Spelman laid down the foundation for me to understand what I was going up against in this world and to always carry myself with dignity and respect. Spelman taught me how to be fearless.

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Sumlin, pictured at his graduation, is a writer in Atlanta.
(Chris Sumlin)

Chris Sumlin, 25

Morehouse College, Class of 2017

I graduated from Ohio Dominican University at 19 with an associate’s degree. I loved ODU, but there was a lack of community there because in almost all of my classes I was the only black male and I never had black professors. When it came time for me to research where I wanted to go to school, I knew I wanted to go to an HBCU where I could get a sense of community and feel like I belong. For me, that was Morehouse College.

At Morehouse, I met so many other blacks like me who were the only “XYZ” in their communities. Morehouse created a safe space for us to be men, be celebrated and accepted. It’s unfortunate that HBCUs don’t get the funding and have the resources as other schools. Following my time at Morehouse I enrolled in a master’s program at Boston University to study television producing. The access to computers, cameras and technology that I experienced at BU far superseded my experience at Morehouse. It’s hard that there always has to be a trade-off when pursuing higher ed as a black man. You either get the community and support you need or you get the billion-dollar endowment and efficient financial aid office.

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Hollis studies biology at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga.
(Tyia Hollis)

Tyia Hollis, 21

Fort Valley State University, Class of 2020

I love attending an HBCU. There is no experience like it. This is honestly my second family, especially since I attend a smaller school. It’s more intimate and we all know each other. The teachers know your name and are willing to help when they know you need help. Being a part of a community of people who all have a common goal and having the same struggles actually gives me a boost of confidence and we all uplift each other.

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I have more opportunities and do not have to be classified by my race but by who I am as a person and my personality. I get to see black professionals that I do not see often. This is one of the best experiences I have ever had, and I am so glad I chose to go to an HBCU. I do not regret this decision at all.

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Martin-Mathews, a retired assistant superintendent, lives in Riverside.
(Gail Martin-Mathews)

Gail Martin-Mathews, 65

South Carolina State University, Class of 1976

I am a product of forced (court-ordered) integration in Anderson, S.C., in 1970. My experiences in high school were not the worst but not the best either. My counselor did not talk to me about college and how to apply. While I was (I believe) the first African American from my high school to be admitted to the National Honor Society, my white teachers and counselor did not recognize me as college material.

Another counselor, who was African American but not my counselor, saw me walking down the hall and asked if I had been admitted to a college. She was shocked when I told her I had not applied and no one had talked to me about it. The college application deadlines had closed and school was almost ending for the summer as well. She instructed me to write to colleges and explain my situation to the college presidents. I remembered South Carolina State College (now University) prior to integration because our segregated high school band (9th-10th grade) had attended a performance there. I applied there because my family had limited funds for application fees and college tuition. State was affordable. I was accepted to SCSU one week prior to college starting.

SCSU provided a challenging educational environment with a sturdy foundation of support. Students and professors spoke the same language without even opening their mouths. It was a familiarity of each other that made learning personal. I believed my professors had a genuine interest in me as an individual. And, yes, I had professors of all ethnicities. It was a cultural climate that catered to me and my heritage.

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Morrison is an early childhood education teacher in Jeju Island, South Korea.
(Kamisha Morrison)

Kamisha Morrison, 43

Florida A&M University, Class of 1999

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I decided to attend an HBCU for the cultural opportunity of being surrounded by professors and peers that looked like me. I can literally count the teachers of color I had from K-12th grade. Although I attended extremely culturally, ethnically, religiously diverse grade, middle and high schools, I was still often the only person of African descent or of color in my honors and Advanced Placement classes.

My experience at FAMU was full of experiences and opportunities I believe I could only have had at an HBCU. Whether it is cultural experiences, social events or historical happenings, I am grateful I was surrounded by a community of people who supported and accepted me just as I am. I would not be the woman I am today without the privilege of being an HBCU graduate. Attending and graduating from an HBCU is one of the best decisions I made in my life.

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Lemus is a public school teacher in Los Angeles.
(Cynthia Benin Lemus)

Cynthia Benin Lemus, 46

Bennett College, Class of 1994

Coming from Portland, Ore., my hometown, living in the South and going to an HBCU was a huge culture shock, but ultimately what I learned about myself (acceptance, pride, history) I could not have learned nor appreciated as much from a PWI (predominately white institution).

Bennett’s nurturing environment inspired my confidence and sharpened my academic skills and gave me the opportunity to explore the vast possibilities for my life alongside women who encouraged me and inspired me to make bold choices. Attending Bennett reminded me that black people, especially black women, have paved the way for scholarship, creative arts, activism and progress in this country.

By attending Bennett, I was essentially charged with not only educating myself but educating others. I am a veteran teacher and librarian and took my activism and sense of justice and equity I learned at Bennett and have used it to create educational opportunities for my students here in L.A. I proudly display my Bennett pennant in my office and on Fridays wear my Bennett sweater for college awareness day.

Black college alumni are resilient and resourceful. Attending an HBCU cultivated confidence both personally and professionally. What I learned stepping on campus for the first time as a young and insecure 17-year-old transformed me into the courageous woman I am today.

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Parker lives in Alexandria, Va., and is a Republican National Committee building engineer.
(Chris Parker)

Chris Parker, 39

Hampton University, Class of 2004

I attended Hampton University on a football scholarship and I also ran track. Being a white male attending an HBCU, I will admit I was nervous about how I would be treated. Once I stepped foot on the yard, those butterflies flew away because I was welcomed into the Hampton family with open arms.

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Vample, pictured in a yellow jacket, lives in Richmond, Va. He is a Virginia Union University vice president of brand marketing and strategic communications.
(Ron Vample)

Ron Vample, 47

Winston-Salem State University, Class of 1993

For me, the choice to attend an HBCU was an easy one. I wanted the experience of learning about our rich ancestral history from people who were like me. It was about examining myself as a black man on a deeper level. Also, I was influenced by family members who attended various HBCUs before me. Hearing them talk about their college years with such fondness made me yearn to experience it as well.

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Thomas studies computer science at Howard University in Washington.
(Shondace Thoma)

Shondace Thomas, 19

Howard University, Class of 2021

I am originally from Guyana. Attending an HBCU gives me an opportunity to be in an environment that is culturally friendly to me. It gives me a sense of historical importance, since I am attending an institution that is a result of historical systemic disqualification of our people.

It provides me with the exposure to black students and informs me of our potential and possibilities once we are given the opportunity to excel. I am able to know of the academic legacy of those who have done exceedingly well in this institution and my inspiration comes from them. This corrects the false image of non-achievement of my people.

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McMahon is an educator in Orlando, Fla.
(Derrick L. McMahon Jr.)

Derrick L. McMahon Jr., 31

Florida A&M University, Class of 2010

HBCUs prepare you to excel in any environment. The message from Day One is that you matter in this world and belong in any field or profession that you choose. As a FAMU graduate, I’ve never had a problem adjusting to any environment. My professors had all been where I wanted to go and knew how to get me there and keep me there. Another benefit of HBCUs: black professors in every program of study on campus who’ve made their mark in their respective fields and have come back to show the next generation of black students how to do the same.

I did not truly understand diversity until I attended an HBCU. Attending an HBCU is so much more than obtaining a degree, it is to both literally and figuratively join, and continue, a legacy of black excellence.


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