‘Students Speak’ About Their Experiences at HBCU’s

An article by Dr. Marybeth Gasman, (with commentary)

This past week, the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute released a new report entitled “Students Speak! Understanding the Value of HBCUs From Student Perspectives.” The report examines the reasons why current students chose to attend HBCU’s, and what they valued most about their experiences while in attendance. Below I summarize the report’s findings and offer my own perspectives on these findings.

Students attended HBCUs because:

• They felt a “strong desire for a sense of belonging.” In particular, students wanted access to a small environment that welcomed them. They also wanted to be a part of college campus that empowered them both culturally and academically. Research, most recently that of Terrell L. Strayhorn (The Ohio State University), shows that a “sense of belonging” is absolutely instrumental to the success of students—especially students of color. HBCU’s provide this sense of belonging.

This “sense of belonging” is something that is almost indescribable.  I will never forget walking onto Hampton University’s campus for the first time (still a high school student) and feeling such a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Now, I think of early students at schools like Tuskegee, at the turn of the century when on viewing the school for the first time marveled at the  sight of all black students, an all black faculty, and of an all black administration.  As impressive AND encouraging as that sight was over one hundred years ago still proves true today.  More importantly, once I enrolled at Hampton in the fall of 2004, I instantly gained a new family.  I met people who I still call brother and sister, people who I can call and vent to, people who have my back, family in the purest sense of the word.  

Not necessarily a Rhodes scholar when I entered HU, the small class sizes, INVESTED faculty and nurturing environment helped me to feel at ease, but also encouraged me to be the best student that I could possibly be.  I know for a FACT that if I would have enrolled in a PWI I would have flunked out.  Now I am on the brink of finishing my Doctoral degree, a process that started with feeling like I belonged…

• They wanted to grow intellectually in an environment “devoid of racism” and that celebrated African-American cultural heritage. Research shows that having a deep sense of one’s culture, especially the positive contributions of others like you, plays a significant role in academic success (Freeman & Cohen, 2001). This is one reason why ethnic studies classes at all institutions are so important.

It was not only the “Afro-centric” professors, or the well read faculty in the history department to instill this cultural appreciation.  We must keep in mind that from hbcu to hbcu this experience will be different.  At HU, I still remember learning in University 101 about contraband slaves, and the contributions of Booker T. Washington and Mary Peake and Emancipation Oak. Also, it seems as if almost every week there was some sort of seminar or symposium on any given issue taking place.  It was here at these seminars where most learning took place!

Students valued their attendance at an HBCU because:

• They had consistent and meaningful interactions with faculty members who looked like them and often had similar backgrounds. In addition, students felt that the professors went “beyond their professionally related responsibilities by expressing genuine interest and concern for their students’ entire development.” Research confirms that having faculty role models leads to success for students of color. Moreover, researchers have found that HBCU faculty members often provide a holistic approach to student learning, engaging students in their development both academically and personally (Palmer & Gasman, 2008).

I will never forget those long nights in Helen G. Edmonds building at North Carolina Central University.  In my first semester as a graduate student, at the end of one of my first classes which ended at around 8′ O’Clock PM, I stayed after to talk with my professor, before I looked at my watch again it was already 10 PM.  This trend continued for the rest of the year, 10 o”clock, 11 even midnight!  Professors literally went out of their way to work and groom students for success.  It was because of professors like these and the interest they took in me that has made me what I am today.

• They were professionally socialized, learning skills and behaviors that would help them advance later in life. Students interviewed in the UNCF study talked about being “held accountable to behave in ways that communicated professionalism.” Having interviewed over 400 HBCU graduates, this idea resonates with my findings as well. Time and time again, HBCU alumni have told me how their college experience shaped them personally—holding them accountable for their actions and giving them the tools to converse and interact in diverse settings (Gasman & Anderson-Thompkins, 2003).

To Early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is unacceptable.”  One of the many tidbits of advice given by Hampton University…

• They benefited from the immense ethnic diversity on campus. While at first glance, it appears that HBCU’s are not diverse institutions; they are in fact, quite diverse. Students appreciated the racial diversity on campus (as of late, HBCU’s have experienced an influx of Latino, white, and Asian students), as well as the within-race ethnic diversity, including students from the Caribbean and Africa. For some students attending an HBCU provided the first opportunity to experience within-race ethnic difference and led to a greater understanding of the African diaspora for them.

HBCUs are really lessons in geography… I learned culture, music, dance, history, traditions, etc… from the diverse student body, to this day I still have friends from Jamaica, the Caribbean, New York, Cali, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, not to mention I learned about the Gullah people of Charleston from one of the most important people I met at HU… my wife! lol

There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about my time at Hampton, I wish everyone could experience what I did at HU, hopefully this blog will begin to capture that experience and encourage others to attend these wonderful prestigious institutions.

I would encourage readers to consult the report for a better understanding of student perspectives on an HBCU education. It is available on the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute’s Web site.

for the article see: http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/%E2%80%9Cstudents-speak%E2%80%9D-about-their-experiences-at-hbcus/29341

for the actual research see: http://www.uncf.org/fdpatterson/Portals/0/UNCF_StudentsSpeak2011.pdf


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