8 HBCU Alums On How School Shaped Their Lives

Give HBCUs the respect that they so rightly deserve.

Workin' Girl

There is an untrue notion that HBCUs somehow don't measure up when it comes to their PWI counterparts. Where this ridiculous notion came from, I'm not sure. But what I do know is that mainstream media is very often guilty of perpetuating this dangerous conception, which in turn has caused both black people as well other races to view them as less than. But considering that some view our entire race as less than, I guess it's not really all that surprising. The reality is, it should not take Beyonce's Homecoming at Coachella or Vice President Kamala Harris to propel the world to give HBCUs the respect that they so rightly deserve. Yes, it's true that HBCUs were created to give black people an opportunity at higher education that they may not have otherwise had in the 1830s, but that does not make them any less amazing both back then or now.

While I personally did not attend an HBCU, I began to hear about the dope experience that only an HBCU can bring at an early age by my parents who both attended North Carolina A&T University. Aggie Pride! And while I could be found at HBCU parties and homecomings when I myself was in undergrad at a PWI, I could never speak to the true HBCU experience and what it means to attend one. That's where the eight amazingly talented women you'll soon meet come into play. They all are HBCU alumni and will share how attending a historically black college or university helped shape their lives and why they have always and will always reign supreme.

Rachelle Townsend, Vice President Internal Audit Manager

Courtesy of Rachelle Townsend

North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC

"During my first two years of high school, I attended a predominately black school, however, I moved at the end of my sophomore year and ended up at a majority-white high school. I remember how empowered I felt at my first high school when I walked in honors or AP classes and all the students looked like me. It was quite the opposite when I attended my second high school, as I was often one of a handful of non-white students in the honor or AP classes. I felt as though I had to prove I deserved to be there, while also shouldering the burden of speaking on behalf of my entire race. I complained to my dad about it and, being an HBCU grad himself, he immediately suggested that I attend an HBCU. He reminded me that while I'd initially set my sights on a PWI, I had my whole life to be a minority.

"Attending an HBCU provided the reassurance that I not only belonged at any table or boardroom I walked into, but it taught me how to own my place at said table or boardroom. This shaped my life because it taught me not to downplay my contributions or minimize my worth just so people would accept my presence."

Chevita Phifer Stewart, Director - Legal Advertising Review at Assurant

Courtesy of Chevita Phifer Stewart

Southern University Law Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

"A family friend recommended that I apply and I felt like I was 'home' when I visited the campus. I attended a PWI for undergrad and I only felt 'at home' when I was with my sorority sisters (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated). Southern [University] changed my life. I was able to learn and feel comfortable making mistakes (I was terrible in Moot Court but I loved International Law).

"Oftentimes black students are treated as a monolith, we aren't, and Southern understood that which gave us the space we needed to matriculate through law school. Southern taught me to feel comfortable going after all of my dreams but more importantly, I was surrounded by extremely smart black people - black excellence."

J. Desiree Rodriguez, B.S., M.A., Author, Entrepreneur, and Educator

Courtesy of J. Desiree Rodriguez

Norfolk State University, Norfolk, VA

"Originally I chose an HBCU because, at the time, that was the only institution that accepted my application. I got denied because of my SATs. I had over 120 hours of community service, an advanced diploma, a 3.0 GPA, recommendation letters, played sports, and was captain in AFJROTC, and it was not enough to get me into my first school of choice. Attending Norfolk State University was the best decision I ever made. It helped me discover, understand, and value the African-American history that is engraved in this country and the world. NSU helped me to discover who I am as an Afro-Latina and to understand the biases in education and jobs.

"To think an HBCU was not on my top list of schools, versus it being the inspiration and thread that is embedded in who I am as a woman. I am forever grateful for the experiences I had. I have been an active member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated for nearly ten years and am entering into my third year of Doctoral School. Without NSU, I believe my path and passions would be different. Thank you Norfolk State!"

Erica R. Jones, Family Physician, Podcaster, Author

Courtesy of Erica R. Jones

Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN

"I chose to attend Meharry because I understood the value of learning medicine in an environment that is dedicated to nurturing its students along the arduous journey. As an applicant with natural hair, my mother feared that I would be rejected after my interviews at various medical schools and even offered me one of her wigs! However, as soon as I walked into the interview room at Meharry, my locs were celebrated. The welcoming and warm spirit of the staff at Meharry propelled me into my current career."

Catch up with Erica on Instagram at @drericajones and @theartoftransitionpodcast.

Teronda Seymore, Writer

Courtesy of Teronda Seymore

Hampton University, Hampton, VA

"Spike Lee's School Daze was released when I was in high school. I don't want to say that watching that movie solely influenced me to attend an HBCU, but I did want the unique experiences that I could only get from a Historically Black College like Homecoming and Battle of the Bands! However, my decision was based more on the idea of attending a school where all of my classmates were intellectuals who looked just like me. I grew up in a rural area where black people generally aren't afforded the same opportunities as white folks. That can take a toll on both your body and your mind because it affects a number of things from where you work, to how much money you can make, to where you live.

"Attending an HBCU showed me a different perspective of life outside of fields, factories, and farms and taught me that the color of my skin doesn't preclude me from another life."

"However don't get it twisted, that doesn't mean I was oblivious to racism and microaggressions, or that I didn't believe either existed. I knew they did and it's not something that's unspoken at an HBCU. I think Hampton better equipped me with tools to navigate those evils and still succeed. And it gave me permission to dream bigger with the mindset that I can absolutely manifest my dreams."

Aminata J. Ba, Esq, Attorney, currently practicing in contracts, healthcare law and litigation

Courtesy of Aminata J. Ba

Hampton University, Hampton, VA

"I went to Hampton [University] on a visit with one of my friends from high school, and her dad, for an Omega Psi Phi probate on a whim. We met students from different places and backgrounds, but it still felt like we were the same. The high school I attended was extremely diverse, so it was almost like culture shock to be at an educational institution where everyone looked like me. I loved it and it just felt right. That weekend trumped any desire to attend any other schools. I think HBCUs pressure students to do more, be disciplined, and establish a sense of community. It honestly prepares you to be successful in professional environments where white people dominate.

"Students are surrounded by Black people on all parts of the spectrum, with different stories, and create lifetime friendships. The environment elevates black students' confidence and builds character. Also, some of the disorganization of attending an HBCU (ask anyone that's ever had to go to the Registrar or Financial Aid office) really prepares you for the B.S. you will have to deal with in the real world, building tenacity, and patience. One of the biggest bonuses I learned once I finished matriculating was how massive and strong the alumni network was. I think HBCU students carry community fostering skills they learn in college for life. It shows in the strength of our alumni networks."

Aliyyah Bragg, Scientist, Clinical Research

Photo Courtesy of Aliyyah Bragg

North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, NC

"I chose to attend an HBCU to be a part of history. While growing up, I did not witness or come across many women in science. Although they may have been hidden in books, the reality of women scientists appeared far and out of my reach. The absence of women scientists in my community inspired me to navigate through this intellectual journey to become one. During that journey, I wanted to be the product of the environment I was placed in to in turn show the world what HBCUs had to offer: excellence.

"Attending an HBCU helped shape my life by being able to develop the confidence to go out in the world and make the difference the world so desperately needed and to gain the courage to show the world innovation from fresh new eyes. It also gave me the opportunity to develop leadership skills that are needed to thrive in Corporate America. My contribution as a scientist is based upon my knowledge, skills, and abilities gained during foundational training that was acquired from an HBCU. So if you ever wondered what the future looks like, it's you. And if you wondered what a scientist looks like, well, it's me."

To stay connected with future projects bringing awareness to HBCUs and the STEM Field follow Aliyyah on Instagram: @aliyyah_b and Facebook: @aliyyah_b.

Crystal S. Gaines, M.A., ESQ, Lawyer at The Gaines Firm, LLC

Photo Courtesy of Crystal

Norfolk State University, Norfolk, VA

"I grew up in a very small, rural, and conservative town outside of Henrico, Virginia. There were probably 25-30 black people out of the 120 people in my graduating class. Growing up in such a small, conservative town, you see the favoritism and stereotyping of individuals based on race quite often. In my particular situation, I noticed it more as it related to me when it was time for me to explore post-high school options. My counselor only introduced me to PWI schools. When I was not interested, she told me that she noticed how I took pride in my appearance and that I should consider getting a cosmetology license as an alternative. I was seriously deterred and unsure of what was next for me.

"It was not until I started to do my own research that I was introduced to HBCUs. I went on my first HBCU tour and I felt at home immediately. I felt something I had never felt before: I felt seen and that feeling never went away. A large part of my decision to attend an HBCU was due to the diversity of the students and the sense of pride in being a black woman/man that was embodied in the culture, values, and academic experience."

"I had never been surrounded by so much black pride and it did wonders for my confidence and my professional development. I am forever grateful to the family culture of my HBCU, the financial aid staff who became like Aunties, the cafeteria staff who made sure I was well-fed away from my momma's home cooking; my cheer sisters, who became the sisters I never had; my professors, who became like the north star for my goals and ambitions; and my campus, for giving me a safe space to learn, grown, and feel empowered.

"All that I am today, the confidence, the perseverance, the 'I can do and have it all' mentality – I owe to my alma mater. I cannot overstate the impact of having professors and colleagues who looked like me, across various disciplines, serving as role models on a day-to-day basis. That was a game-changer for me."

"My momma sent her little girl to Norfolk State and Norfolk State gave her a woman of character, intelligence, confidence, pride, and ambition. Norfolk State taught me how to square up with a challenge, the importance of legacy, and knowing your worth as a black woman – I would not and could not have received those gems elsewhere. I wish I could pinpoint one experience over the other, but I can't.

"In truth, it was a collective of what the HBCU culture, pride, and expectations embodied and promoted. At the end of the day, this first-generation, HBCU-made lawyer wouldn't have been prepared for the real world absent of my experiences and network at Norfolk State University."

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Featured image courtesy of Chevita Phifer Stewart

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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