A recent Gallup-USA report on minority college students found that graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) perform better than non-HBCU graduates in categories of thriving in purpose, financial well-being, preparedness for life after college, workplace engagement, and experiential learning opportunities such as internships and long-term projects.
This report added fuel to the debate over which educational path is best for Black people, HBCUs or Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). I've witnessed spats on twitter, panel discussions, and personal conversations about the topic. I happened to go to both a PWI and an HBCU during undergrad, so I wanted to share my thoughts in light of this report.
And I’ve been even more compelled to share my experiences at a PWI as an act of solidarity with the protests of racism and marginalization at Mizzou, Yale, and now Claremont McKenna College--my former college.
Before I was conferred my Spelman degree, I had a terrible time at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), which left me much more wounded than I had ever cared to admit--until now.
MY PWI EXPERIENCE
I thought I had to go to a PWI. It was part of the culture at my New-England boarding school. I had assimilated so deeply into its culture, even though HBCUs are deeply engrained in my family history. My grandmother went to Howard University, my grandfather went to Fisk University, and my two oldest cousins both graduated Summa Cum Laude from Howard University. But despite their successes, I didn't want to do what my big cousins did-- I thought that it was narrow of them to choose not only my grandmother's alma mater, but a school with primarily black people.
I couldn’t be bothered with applying to any HBCUs because none of my friends were, and even my black ones who did, never actually considered going. I do admit my own naiveté in the college admissions process. I assumed all colleges were the same, except for HBCUs. I knew they were different, but they were off the table because I fed into the narrative that they would prepare me less. So, when one of my white best friends on the high school volleyball team and freshman year roommate said that she was considering schools in Southern California, I thought to myself, "Cali seems cool," and I applied to basically every small liberal arts college in the state.
I decided on CMC, a competitive liberal arts college. It had also been ranked The Happiest College by The Daily Beast the year I applied. I had been freezing in New England, and the promise of happiness, year-round avocado, and sunny days seemed pretty good to 17-year-old me.
I was happy at first, too. CMC provided free beer at all the parties, the local liquor store didn’t card, I was free of the stricter rules at my boarding school, and it literally never rained. That’s why I didn’t expect my failure to address my aversion to predominantly black environments would catch up with me so fast.
It only took me until October of my freshman year to realize that I had made a terrible, potentially irreversible mistake. I wasn't doing that well in classes, I was drinking a lot, and uncharacteristically, I spent a lot of time in my tiny room.
When I did go out, I had gotten into a lot of heated arguments that had almost turned physical a few times. That's not me. In retrospect, I realize that I was tired of defending my blackness to everyone, and that was the source of my anger. I was tired of explaining my hair; tired of white boys touching it at parties; tired of people staring at my ass before they looked me in my eyes--if they ever did; and tired of my courses skimming over African-American history, if they mentioned it at all. What a fun time it was to literally be an angry black woman among people who really would never see beyond that stereotype.
The administration didn’t help either. Somehow, in what I felt like was a continuum of bad luck, ants infested my side of the room, leaving my roommate's food and items unscathed. Ants were crawling out of the keys in my laptop, into my pillowcases, and between my shoelaces. I had told the cleaning staff that tended to our rooms, and I sprayed their repellent spray to which the defiant ants ultimately built immunity. I begged the admin and I asked my RA numerous times through tears to fix it. It wasn’t until my RA got around to telling the necessary people that an exterminator FINALLY came. It was a slap in the face that it took my white, blonde RA to enact a change even my mother couldn't fix when she called the school. Nobody cared, nobody apologized, nobody let me move, nobody made me feel comfortable.
Few people know how miserable I really was at CMC. My mother knew I was sad only because she could see how happy I had become when I withdrew from the institution. The only person who may have gotten a glimpse would be my dear friend who came and stayed with me in my dorm after I called her in the middle of the night. My heart was beating even faster than it normally did during that year. I had the hardest time sleeping at CMC because I was truly afraid that if I were to die in my sleep from a stressed heart or panic attack, I would perish without ever having escaped CMC. This night in particular, I thought I was going to have a heart attack or something just as terrible. There’s no way my friend knew the cause of all that stress, though I thank her for coming to hold my hand.
CMC simply didn't have the racial support that I was too young to realize I desperately needed. I knew I was sad, I knew that CMC’s admin would not look out for me, I knew that CMC had disgustingly low numbers of students of color, but I wasn’t able to realize that all of those things played a linear role in my trajectory into misery.
What I did know was that I had a lot of potential--I knew I was going to be somebody. I didn't want CMC to be able to say, "Look at Ko. We're so proud of our alumna." I didn't want CMC to ever feel like they had anything to do with my success.
Ironically though, CMC has everything to do with my success. My single year there was filled with self-discovery that came at the cost of my happiness. I was miserable attending classes with the carbon copy, self-centered peers by which I was surrounded.
But there was relief. I felt better when I told a few friends in May 2012 that I had decided to never re-enroll at CMC. I cried when I left, partly because I had made some solid friends, but moreover because I could bid a permanent adieu to the place that made me so depressed, so anxious, and then so relieved to leave it. Perhaps my feelings mirrored the way a divorcée feels after she signs the last round of finalizing papers allowing her to finally walk away from her failed marriage.
Without those experiences, I never would've been able to move on to something better. I never would've found my beloved alma mater.
THE TRANSITION TO AN HBCU
I studied abroad for a semester after I left CMC. Then, I had the epiphany that I needed to apply to an HBCU because of my most beloved travel companions were black women. I was better at narrowing my criteria for my dream school this time: I wanted to be within driving distance of home and I wanted to go to a top HBCU. Naturally I chose Spelman, the No. 1 HBCU, which also happens to be an all-women's college in the city known for housing black excellence--Atlanta, Ga.
I will say that Spelman cared about me as a person, and I think that CMC cared about me only during the admissions process because I offered them a diversity statistic.
Spelman wasn’t a totally flowery experience for me even though I ultimately “got my groove back” there. I came into the space unaware of how close-knit everyone had already become. I didn’t have an immediate invitation to the same sisterhood about which everyone bragged. So, with Morehouse in close vicinity, I took solace in the male attention I had been getting there--it was refreshing after leaving Claremont, where no one saw me in that way. In a hesitance to be vulnerable to the kind of sisterhood that would make me address my own shortcomings (as real sisterhood does), I found myself spending more time feeding distractions than I did evaluating what would be best for me holistically.
After a while though, I got to know myself better. I started to realize that this would be the only place in my life where I was guaranteed to be surrounded and embraced by thousands of educated, beautiful, talented, free-thinking black women on a daily basis. So I challenged myself to embrace my new environment, because at that point I knew nothing could be worse than CMC.
Ultimately the universe conspired as it tends to do when you're walking in your purpose, and I was able to pick the perfect major, find some of the most kind-hearted friends (sisters rather), and finish the semester with damn near a 4.0. I was in love with my classes, Atlanta, and the vibe on campus. Once I tapped into these things, there was no looking back.
Spelman taught me sisterhood. It taught me to be competitive, but not conniving. It taught me to lift my sisters as I climb--because really there's room for all of us, we just have to push for it together. For that same reason, I respect the black student unions at PWIs that I was too blasé to join.
Spelman was my emotional rehab, and it rebuilt me after I had left CMC so broken. And Spelman has been so very good to me--it saved me, actually, from a life of not fully understanding the power in the intersection of my gender and race. And that's the purest kind of love I know.
I realized I was beautiful at Spelman. I realized I was powerful, even if historically speaking, I shouldn't be. I learned how to articulate what I wanted. And wow, believe it or not, I achieved that without men and white people in every single one of my classes. If you think that I'm worse off for it, or that I ran away from “the real world” (as people often call PWIs), tell that to my Ivy League masters degree--it'll be here in December 2016.
The students at Claremont who didn’t “run away” and made use of black student unions at least had a place to vent. I was too shy to address my blackness to ever seriously join. I know that some powerful work can be done amid a culture in which you’re the severe minority and mistreated for it--look at Mizzou, look at Yale, and look at CMC. I thank you all for staying and speaking up--that is not my story.
Let me just say, Black people, whatever our choice in institution, our degrees do not save us from the reality of being Black in America.
Let me also say that debating the value of one college degree over another is afforded to those able to go to college. So in our bickering about PWIs vs HBCUs, we're really just perpetuating our privilege. On twitter as students at PWIs stand up in protest of mistreatment, I've seen this debate resurface--returning to dissension rather than solidarity.
Everyone will have to continue to fight in solidarity no matter where you went to school. Now that I'm back in a predominately white environment, an Ivy League at that, I recognize the importance to speak about race as much as possible. I find myself using what I learned at Spelman about being empowered in my blackness in order to make predominately white spaces address their racial shortcomings.