HBCU Insights: A guide to maximizing your HBCU experience

A column by Larry J. Walker

Over the next several weeks thousands of students will arrive at private and public HBCUs throughout the nation. A new cadre of scholars will continue the tradition of contributing to education, literature, politics and science. However, the beginning of the school year includes a variety of challenges for students. For instance, anxious first generation college students may struggle balancing the expectations of family members and peers while adapting to a different environment. Students transferring from another post secondary institution have to meet the expectations of faculty members while developing relationships with classmates. By contrast, returning students fresh from a summer internship, international travel or vacation will easily transition into their respective on or off campus housing. The varied experiences of each group add to the overall campus environment and offer opportunities for students to connect. Maximizing academic and social experiences at an HBCU can propel the career of new and returning students. Since their inception HBCUs have successfully prepared students to challenge injustices and overcome economic and political barriers.

Throughout the Civil Rights era students and alumni of Lincoln University, Morehouse College, Howard University and Shaw University successfully challenged discriminatory policies. Today, HBCUs continue the tradition of fighting for social justice by challenging students to defy conventional thinking regarding ethnicity, gender and race. Embracing HBCUs distinguished history of fighting injustices represents one of the many benefits of attending these institutions. For example, students benefit from enriching social experiences including homecoming, step shows, pageants, student organizations, fraternities and sororities, rallies and protests. Although HBCUs offer rich social experiences they provide a roadmap for budding entrepreneurs and change agents.

Ensuring students capitalize on opportunities to network with future corporate leaders, venture capitalists, social activists, app developers and trendsetters are crucial. HBCUs provide nurturing environments that allow students to develop strong relationships with peers while simultaneously examining important issues including income and health disparities. New students have the opportunity to interact with administrators, faculty members and staff developing cutting edge technologies, supporting emerging leaders and eradicating deadly diseases. In addition, HBCUs provide Black students with safe campus communities that embrace cultural diversity and beliefs. Supporting certain cultural norms including communalism makes HBCUs unique in comparison to other post-secondary institutions. For this reason, students should become actively involved in a variety of activities to fully embrace the HBCU experience including:

  • Joining student government, clubs, honor societies, Black Greek lettered organizations (BGLOs): Participating in on campus student organizations provides vital training for individuals interested in a career in public service. Furthermore, members of student government develop important skills that are transferable to the workforce and help students’ identify and address pressing issues. Honor societies offer scholarships, opportunities to network with scholars from other schools and give students a competitive edge when applying to graduate or professional school. BGLOs traditionally refer to members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council including Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Beta Sigma, Iota Phi Theta, Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho. Each organization has a long and distinguished history of fighting for equal rights throughout the globe.
  • Continuing the fight for social justice: The majority of HBCUs have chapters, groups or individuals involved in important issues including the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), #BlackLivesMatter, National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and 100 Black Men of America among others. Joining an organization focused on closing inequities is consistent with the history of HBCUs.
  • Research opportunities with faculty, staff and off campus institutes and think tanks: HBCUs have a distinguished intellectual history of cultivating the minds of young academics dedicated to solving important issues. Continuing the tradition of challenging economic, educational, political, social and technological issues is vital. Ambitious student’s interested in examining important issues benefit from opportunities interacting with knowledgeable experts in various disciplines. Furthermore, working with a mentor establishes relationships that could lead to research and/or publication opportunities after college.

Students attending HBCUs have the chance to honor the memory of alumni that fought to address national and international issues including Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King, Jr. Recent incidents including the murders in South Carolina highlight the importance of working together to solve problems that continue to persist. It is imperative that students utilize opportunities to interact with individuals with similar interests. Establishing relationships with peers could led to addressing systemic issues that undermine efforts to create an egalitarian society.

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Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

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