The other day as I muddled through the daily morning routine of getting children ready for school, making lunches and snacks, watching the clock and listening (when I remember) to the usually interesting topics blaring from the radio tuned into my local National Public Radio (NPR) station, a story came on and I had to stop. The new regulations and changes put on the federal student aid applications were having (HBCUs). This really hit home today because, I had just returned from a wonderful Homecoming weekend in Petersburg, Virginia at my alma mater, Virginia State University. I graduated from there 20 years ago. And I understand how much that place shaped my life, my thoughts and help to begin my path to being the scholar that I am today.
VSU was the place where it all got started for me. VSU helped me figure out who I was and maybe even who I wanted to be. The reason why this is so important is because when I was in High School in the late 1980s, a guidance counselor that told me that I was probably not college material. I should try to go to a community college and then try a 4 year institution. I was shocked, speechless, because my mother never said to me “if you go to college,” she always said, “when you go to college.” So, instead of listening to this clueless woman put in a position of power and influence, I listened to my family and my community and I looked to the South, toward my ancestral home. I only applied to HBCUs because I felt I had no choice, if I was going to make it in college (as I always knew I would), it was going to be at a place where I knew I would be valued and have a voice. I had to leave the Northeast, I had to leave New York City and I still believe it was the best thing I could have ever done. HBCUs have a large number of students that need financial aid, that benefit from federal programs, these regulations are decreasing the numbers who are eligable to stay in school and earn a degree. Lets face it, I work at a large public, state university where I see the costs of higher education making the prospect of getting a Bachelor’s degree somewhat of a luxury for larger numbers of undergraduates. I have taken my alma mater for granted, in the pursuit of my own career and my own upward mobility, I have forgotten my foundation and I am sad about this.
I read in a recent article in Black Voices an open letter to graduates of HBCUs by Dr. Charlie Nelms, I quote:
“Dear HBCU graduates,
Although most of us have never met, we share a special bond as graduates of one of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With few exceptions, these are the places that sprouted from sweat-soaked seeds planted by the sons and daughters of former slaves, sharecroppers and subsistence farmers whose belief in the power of education confounded the plans of plantation owners, straw bosses and Southern white politicians. HBCUs were the places that accepted us because they wanted to serve us, not because they were forced to do so or wanted to “diversify” their enrollment. They welcomed us with open arms and did not need to establish black culture centers or persuade faculty and staff to accept or embrace us. HBCUs never characterized us as high-risk or academically or culturally disadvantaged; they chose instead to focus on our assets. Thankfully, we were the reason that HBCUs existed and not a special project on diversity and inclusion. Most of us would agree that our alma mater enveloped us in a culture of caring from which it was nearly impossible to escape. As a consequence, we developed the intellectual, social and leadership skills that allowed us to compete with anyone in the world. All of this HBCUs did with only a fraction of the fiscal resources available to predominately white universities (PWIs).
I am sure you must have read by now that HBCUs are at a major crossroads. Enrollment is declining, in part because of increased competition from PWIs, online universities, proprietary schools and community colleges. In fact, according to the Oct. 9, 2014, edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the University of Phoenix Online Campus is the largest producer of African-American recipients of bachelor’s degrees in all disciplines. In addition, leadership and fiscal instability, problems with accreditation and growing discord between presidents and boards of trustees are affecting even the strongest HBCUs. In all fairness, I must note that many of these same challenges afflict PWIs as well. The difference, in my view, is the fact that failure at HBCUs has disproportionate implications for African-American students, families and the communities in which they are located. The failure of HBCUs is not an option; we have too much riding on them to let that happen.”
I had to quote this because I could not say in any better. Dr. Nelms is correct, our HBCUs are in crises and I for one, do not want to see them disappear! VSU is deeply entrenched into my fabric, my soul. I learned so much there. I learned about the politics of Blackness, the complexities of race and racism in the south and in the north, I learned about how to be successful in the academy and I learned a lot about myself and where I could best apply my interests and talents. When I had a very rough semester my freshman year, I was met with a healthy combination of tough love and support that helped me through to be a really good student. Because I knew inside, that I could not let my community at VSU or back home down, I was in it for the long haul. I was going to be successful.
At the moment, I sit as a tenured professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst (a PWI). Yet, I remember that I was trained to understand that mentorship is just as important as scholarship, which is not something that is necessarily standard at my current institution. I was also trained to recognize someone struggling and reach out my hand to help without a need for acknowledgement or praise. It is not about service, it is about responsibility. So, although it took me a long time to go back home to Petersburg, I now understand that VSU is a part of my soul, my identity, and the foundation of who I am. My husband a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta sees things the same way, it is how we view the world, it is how we teach our children. And now it is time to step back in and bring our children, so they may see and understand the beauty of belonging and the beauty of family. There are no more excuses.
It is time to pay back, join my Alumni organization, and continue to support the place that will forever be a part of my identity.
VSU, I love it, I love it, I love it!