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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'sHomecoming 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."

Are you a member of our insiders squad? Join us in the xoTribe Members Community today!

Featured image courtesy of Chevita Phifer Stewart

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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