The Nature of Faculty Impact at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

amanda wilkerson

Amanda Wilkerson

A strong research case has been made that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are economic engines. In particular, the United Negro College Fund released findings from its HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities which corroborated the aforementioned assertation. Their report demonstrated, in dollar and cents, the occasionally elusive value HBCUs have on external partners. Although the aforementioned is true, I argue that the ability of HBCUs to make such an impact is also a result of the teaching strength of its faculty, whose instructional approaches empower students to seize the power of a post-secondary education in a transformational manner. Moreover, while I have studied HBCU instructional practices, and account for their culturally-relevant pedagogical approaches, my statement is buttressed by the investment my HBCU, Florida A&M University (FAMU), made in me. I am originally from Miami, Florida and primarily grew up in two different south Florida communities. First, Liberty City and secondly, unincorporated Dade County, which is now referred to as Miami Gardens. Each of these geographic locations have disastrous crime and educational statistics that enumerate the often-stated realities of living in mostly urban areas. One author, in a story that appeared in the New Tropic, described Liberty City as the forgotten Black middle-class mecca. Also, many of my friends marveled at the movie Moonlight as an illustrative focal point to help them picture the neighborhood I proudly grew up in. However, supported by the love of my family and community, my life refuted the unintended casualties generally associated with metropolitan living. Instead of being a high school dropout, I went to college. Relatedly, during my senior year of high school, I met, then FAMU president, Dr. Humphries. He visited my school during a college tour stop in Miami. I remember him being a towering figure who stood taller than my high school principal. He was serious about sharing the good news of FAMU and had more presence and spirit than my high school pep squad. As he approached the microphone, he asked one simple question. “How many of you will attend FAMU so that we can teach you how to change the world?” At the time I had no plans of attending Florida A&M. In fact, immediately after graduating from high school I elected to enroll into another locally located institution. Nevertheless, when things did not work out at my selected school of choice it was Humphries’ words that drew me into applying to FAMU. I left my bustling Miami community to live in Florida’s capital city. There was no fanfare when I arrived in Tallahassee. With one suitcase, no housing, and no class registration, I was determined to make my second attempt at college work. Immediately I felt at home.

Perhaps it was FAMU’s Homecoming or developing new friendships, or perhaps it was the front row seat to watching the incredible marching band. They practiced yards away from my residential hall. The sounds of their musical energy would float right into my room’s window. Still, those experiences paled in comparison to the richness of the instructional knowledge I encountered that electrified me after attending classroom lectures given by the likes of Adeline Evans, Bill Proctor, Sylvester Cohen, Emma Dawson, Ufote Inamente, David Jackson, Valencia Matthews, and so many others. Essentially, while the student life experience made me feel like a Rattler, learning made me feel like a FAMUan. My professors critically engaged and challenged students to not simply learn, but to learn deeply. To better explain, I didn’t walk into a class, I was welcomed into a community of people who looked like me, cared about me, and was ready to equip and empower me for lifelong learning because they saw the best in me and other students. Note, I wasn’t always a model undergraduate. In fact, it took me several years past the traditional four-year timeline for degree completion to actually graduate. Nevertheless, when I left FAMU, buried in me was a “somebodieness”, an enduring ability to believe in one’s dignity, and worth as described by Dr. Martin Luther King. In short, as Ladson-Billings explained it, what FAMU did was not just “good teaching” or what the academy has come to recognize as culturally-relevant pedagogy. FAMU took all that I brought with me, lived experiences and culture included, to make me most of who I am today. Put slightly different, faculty developed my raw potential. On-campus instructional leaders instilled into me a sense of pride. That kept me going when I wanted to give up. I so aptly remember the words of my math Professor Dr. Anderson, he would say to the class “what’s the difference between a black balloon and white balloon, it’s not the color of the balloon that makes it float, it’s what’s inside that makes it go up, so I am going to develop you Rattlers from the inside out.” Math was not my favorite subject nor my academic strong suit, but he made me practice College Algebra like a math gladiator. For me, I blossomed when instructors knew I didn’t come into the classroom with the knowledge but were unfazed. As I recalled it, faculty didn’t just record and report my progress or lack thereof, they themselves were interventions that spurred my learning. HBCU faculty demand excellence and expect success, but they provided support, both in and outside of the classroom. On one hand, their support and belief in me helped me stay and complete college. On the other hand, their support and belief in me heavily impacted my decision to teach in higher education. As Dr. Mary McCloud Bethune explained it, HBCUs really do empower students to enter to learn so that students can depart to serve. True enough, my illustration is only a microcosm of the academic magic that happens at HBCUs across the country. Yet it gives credence to the critical notion that faculty are apart of the engine which fuels the economic impact HBCUs offer. Recently, I earned a doctorate. Additionally, this fall I began my tenure earning faculty appointment at an emerging preeminent research 1 post-secondary institution, the University of Central Florida. As I begin my wonderful professional career, I have many to thank—parents, God, Sissi—my mentor, an unwavering source of support, but also FAMU. As faculty, administrators, and supporters consider the impact HBCUs have on the larger US economy, I hope that HBCU leadership will also consider how faculty support of students can benefit the schools exponentially. The greatest reminder that HBCUs are strong economic systems is noting the role faculty play on campus.

Amanda Wilkerson is the director of the Urban Teaching Initiatives Project at the University of Central Florida in the College of Community Innovation and Education. Additionally, she has written educational materials and coordinated forums on significant social, pedagogical, and educational equity matters. Prolific social justice advocate and scholar, Dr. Wilkerson serves as guest editor for the Urban Education Research and Policy Annuals Journal-Hillard Sizemore Special Edition, and Co-Editor of From Student to Scholar: How Colleges of Education Mentor Underserved Doctoral Students; A project of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Recently, Wilkerson served as the partnership committee chair for the Parramore Innovation Education District initiative. As a part of her passion for higher education, Amanda is enhancing how students seize the promise of  post-secondary education through access.