One of the most significant parts of being an HBCU graduate is, not only the legacy you leave on the campus, but the values your HBCU instills within you. The buildings, classrooms, and residence halls are far more than just a campus; they’re home. The rich historical culture of HBCUs run deep, and does not simply disappear upon graduation. Although the status of alumnus implies one physically leaves the institution and moves into the “real world,” the lessons learned and values adopted remain. It is important HBCU graduates learn how to effectively navigate spaces where knowledge of HBCUs is either very miniscule or completely unheard of. This situation is not uncommon, and is one which HBCU alumni will encounter in a variety of settings whether it be professional, academic, or even social. Understanding how to properly represent, as well as advocate for HBCUs even in the most informal setting will greatly contribute to the growth and success of the institutions.
First, developing an awareness of others’ perceptions is key to effectively navigating various spaces. Although there are over 100 in existence, many people still do not understand what HBCUs are or their purpose historically and currently. HBCU alumni must be aware of the responses they may receive upon stating where they proudly earned their degree from. Unfortunately, they are likely to encounter looks of confusion or discomfort, and even comments which indicate pure ignorance. However, as a product of an HBCU, it then becomes the responsibility of the graduate to turn the situation into a teachable moment, properly navigating the space. They must share the history of HBCUs, including, their initial purpose, as well as their current status as respectable institutions of higher learning.
As an undergraduate, I remember countless times, I attended academic conferences and events as, both the only student from an HBCU, as well as one of the few black attendees. As I was instantly aware of my position within the space, I knew that I was representing communities far greater than just myself. I realized, my words may be the first time the people within the room hear about HBCUs, let alone from a student who currently attends an HBCU. Although I did not intend to be the “spokesperson” I quickly understood it was my responsibility to take on the challenge and properly educate, while advocating as well. With much confidence I would share the background of HBCUs and specifically discuss the year my institution, Claflin University, was founded, our tagline and motto, academic programs, organizations, global strides, community involvement, and status as HBCU of the Year by HBCU Digest in 2015.
Now as a graduate, I recognize the importance of appropriately representing my HBCU now more than ever. I am, officially, a product of an HBCU, therefore, my actions must speak to the excellence which my HBCU communicates. HBCU alumni must consider their alma mater as they share their thoughts, debate topics, provide insight, or simply contribute to a conversation. Their voice holds far more power as they are connected to a community of unique institutions continuously combatting stereotypes and shattering false notions. I ensure the pride I have in my institution shines through whenever I navigate a particular space. I attempt to show that I am, yes educated, but also highly aware of the world around me.
Prior to attending my undergraduate university, people would question, “why attend an HBCU, the real world is not just black.” It was not until I completed my first year that I realized, no, the “real world” is not just black, but neither are HBCUs. While attending Claflin University I interacted with students, faculty, and staff from all over the world. I learned something from each and every person I encountered, and came to the conclusion even those who look like me and even come from the same background, may view an issue entirely different from myself. HBCUs reveal how diverse people belonging to the same community can truly be. They encourage students to respect the opinions, beliefs, values, and choices of others while learning to work together to achieve a common goal. It is imperative HBCU alumni demonstrate this awareness and openness to diversity in all forms as it represents the values instilled within them by their institution.
While HBCUs continue to grow and popularize themselves through academic excellence, alumni must take on the challenge as spokespersons for their universities, even in the most unexpected settings. Pushing the HBCU agenda can be done as simply as sharing what one has learned from their institution or what current students are accomplishing at the institution.
It starts with easily opening the door for conversation, inviting people to ask questions and take in this beneficial information. Speaking up as an HBCU graduate allows for HBCUs to have a seat at the table in spaces they might have never had the opportunity otherwise. This role is critical, so do not shy away from looks of discomfort or confusion when the words historically black college/institution are uttered; speak proudly and advocate while educating!