As an American Indian woman from a small, federally recognized Indian tribe in upstate New York, I had big dreams of going to a great university. I was accepted into a well-known predominantly White institution (PWI) in central New York, where I earned my undergraduate degree. Later, I earned my master’s degree from Norfolk State University, which is one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The choice was simple; anybody who knows me knows I have a love and proclivity for culture. After all, experiencing different cultures helps educate a person, not only academically but socially as well.
And only now, as I settle comfortably into my new job as coordinator for Norfolk State University’s living-learning communities, do I feel that I can adequately describe my feelings toward both my PWI and HBCU experiences. There is a striking difference, and I am dismayed to report that I had been conditioned to think that my experiences at my PWI were acceptable and somehow inspiring. Yet had I not gone to Norfolk State University, I may never have learned what it truly means to uplift a student.
Coming from the north, I was unfamiliar with southern hospitality, and as I began my first semester at Norfolk State University, the kindness on the campus overcame me. I felt so much compassion from fellow students. Students began inviting me to study with them, and we would typically meet in residence halls or the library and bring food to share while we challenged each other’s ideas while still creating cohesion as a community. The professors were great and they always wanted their students to succeed, but to be a part of a group of peers who equally wanted to see me succeed was unlike anything I had previously encountered.
Conversely, my PWI was tensely competitive to the degree that I kept every one of my grades private. I often felt targeted, especially when it came to Q&A sessions after presentations. In my opinion, PWIs seem to promote the mainstream American ideology of individualism, whereas HBCUs tend to foster collectivism, but I didn’t realize this until I attended Norfolk State University.
There was a point early on at my HBCU where I had the “this group cares about me” epiphany while working on a group paper together. There were four of us, each had a computer, and we read our 25-page paper line-by-line in Google Drive, checking grammar and transition statements. It took us four hours, and it was a devotion to unity I had never previously experienced in a small group. I had been influenced prior to my HBCU to think that a group paper was made up of parts from individuals, pasted together in an organized fashion, and after the paper was handed in for a grade there was talk of who dropped the ball. At my HBCU, I realized this competitive and individualist practice could be replaced by one of cooperation and support.
Even so, HBCUs do not shy away from controversial issues. In class, we covered racial topics with in-depth frankness, and I had a voice and was able to convey real concerns without feeling ostracized. Our classrooms felt comfortable and open to discussions about a variety of ethnic disparities. I mention this because the supportive environment at my HBCU wasn’t because we avoided difficult topics. In fact, it was just the opposite. On the other hand, my PWI never touched on similar topics and there was always this movement to “save the non-Whites,” as if non-Whites were dysfunctional.
My experiences lead me to make two suggestions. First, HBCUs should place a stronger emphasis on recruiting American Indians to be part of their communities. Many cultural congruencies exist between Black and American Indian traditions. For example, both cultures involve extended family when raising children, and HBCUs promote a community-based family feel. Second, American Indians have shared experiences that historically marginalized populations are familiar with in a dominant society. Therefore, I recommend that fellow American Indians seriously consider attending an HBCU to learn about the similarities that exist between our histories and worldviews.
Patrisha E. Aregano is the coordinator for the Office of Learning Communities at Norfolk State University and she is pursuing an Education Specialist (Ed.S.) degree with a concentration in International Higher Education Leadership from Old Dominion University.