Black Faces in White Spaces: Unearthing the Racialized and Gendered Experiences of Black Women Residential Assistants

A. Hardaway

Ayana Hardaway

Banana found on door handle of black students’ dorm; White Student charged with contaminating Black roommate’s belongings with bodily fluids; “We’re really scared”: Students on edge as racial slur found on campus.

These headlines represent several of many news headlines which have surfaced over the last year representing the types of racially charged incidents occurring on college campuses nationwide. During the tumultuous presidential campaign leading up to the most recent election in 2017, the United States experienced an uprising in domestic discriminatory and racial attacks. These occurrences resulted in an eruption of violence, murders, and protests, which were recorded and streamed on social media. Inevitably, such occurrences also affected U.S. universities across the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. Additionally, college-specific data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, suggests the election itself played a role in the influx of reported cases. Incidents on campuses have included physical harassment, microaggressions, vandalism accompanied by racial symbols or slurs, and hate speech. Such occurrences have resulted in Black students, and other historically marginalized groups on campuses, to cope by drawing on various methods of resistance; such as staging protests on campus, and raising their voices when slighted.

When incidents like these take place within residential living communities, Resident Assistants (RAs) typically stand at the front lines. RAs are tasked with the responsibility of upholding inclusive and safe spaces where students live while having the ability to recognize a crisis and follow proper university protocol to manage that crisis. As a former RA at a predominantly White institution (PWI), I was also on the front lines and can recall feeling challenged and having my authority questioned, mostly by my White residents. It was unbeknownst to me at the time if the push-back I was experiencing was because I was a woman, because I was Black, or both. These experiences occurred over a decade ago and caused me to wonder: What are the current experiences of Black women RAs who need to support others while experiencing multiple forms of oppression themselves as a result of their leadership role, race and gender?

After consulting the higher education literature, here’s what I discovered:

Research on Black RAs is Limited: Currently, educational scholarship questioning how African American students navigate racism on college campuses as part of their leadership roles are underexplored. Furthermore, scholarship centering Black women employed in the RA role are explored even less. Shaun Harper’s 2011 study on the experiences of Black male RAs at PWIs confirm that while RAs are provided with the tools to address common challenges, “there are problematic, race-specific others that have gone undisclosed in previous research and consequently unaddressed in residence life departments.” Overall, most of the published research on the experiences of RAs documents raceless accounts of challenges faced by RAs. 

RAs are Undertrained: A great deal of responsibility and risk come hand in hand with being an RA. Research has acknowledged the ways in which RAs, who are some of the most important employees in higher-ed, are often the most undertrained. As a result, traditional RA training is primarily focused on providing strategies to help students address commonly known challenges within their residence halls. Subsequently, conflict addressing issues of racism are avoided. The research which centers the experiences of Black students complicates these challenges and only confirm that there is more to be learned within residence life departments. Given the current racial tensions on campuses, more research on the racialized experiences of RAs are warranted for institutions to provide the trainings needed to support Black students serving in these roles.

Black Women RAs Need Support: In their 2017 study, which explored the intersectional experiences of Black women RAs, Ericka Roland and Vonzell Agosto’s findings alluded to the challenges students face on campus due to the shift in the nation’s political and racial climate. Specifically, the study reported that an increase in campus racial microaggressions became more visible after the killings of unarmed Black men and the Black Lives Matter movement. Black women RAs reported feeling that due to their gender and race, they struggled with facilitating dialogue around current events and racial issues with White residents.

Black women college students share a collective history of discrimination and marginalization within systems of higher education. Unlike their Black men and White women counterparts, these women share a unique social location in their racial and gender identity where they experience multiple types of oppression from dominant groups and the target groups in which they are socially assigned. My research seeks to unpack these intersections for Black women RAs.

While my current research explicitly explores these experiences at PWIs, my future research agenda seeks to explore the experiences of Black women RAs at HBCUs (another area which has been underexplored within the higher education literature). HBCUs are experiencing a surge in enrollment. According to Marybeth Gasman, Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, freshman enrollment is up 40% at HBCUs due to the recent national episodes of racial unrest. HBCUs often highlight their ability to create inclusive campus climates through cultivating meaningful relationships between faculty, staff, and students which enhance student retention and success. Black feminist scholars refer to this sense of nurturing and cross-familial patterns of care as “othermothering.” While HBCUs may offer a more inclusive campus than their PWI counterparts, some scholars suggest that sexism continues to be pervasive, and embedded within institutional practices at HBCUs. In her article entitled “Addressing Gender Issues in the Historically Black College and University Community: A Challenge and Call to Action”, Florence Bonner from Howard University explains that “In terms of barriers to promotion, exclusion from the curricula, a chilly climate in the workplace and classroom, and sexual harassment, African American women face the same obstacles at HBCUs as they do at PWIs.” Such findings would indicate that while Black undergraduate RAs at HBCUs might experience less racially charged microaggressions and conflict than their PWI counterparts, they might experience a heightened degree of gender-based discrimination from men, who also identify as Black.

In order for postsecondary administrators and educators (at PWIs and HBCUs alike) to retain, support, and improve the unique experiences of these women, understanding the gendered and racialized realities of their experiences are crucial.

Ayana Tyler Hardaway is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Policy, Organizational, & Leadership Studies in the College of Education at Temple University. Under the advisement of Dr. James Earl Davis, she is conducting a critical, qualitative study on the experiences of Black undergraduate women RAs within a PWI. Ayana’s primary research interests include exploring the intersections of race and gender within Black women, and marginalized groups in college settings, cultural identity, and contemporary social movements on college campuses. Ayana has previously served as a Research Assistant on a Community Based Research Project with primary and secondary schools in collaboration with the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Ayana also holds several professional memberships in organizations such as AERA, ASHE, and PA-NAME.

Getting Predominantly Black Institutions a Primetime Spot

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Anthony Fowlkes

For African American students looking to pursue postsecondary education, the term HBCU brings out many opinions. Recently, HBCUs have been featured in the media from TV shows like Black-ish, and United Shades of America to their own PBS special, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities. Just last year, these institutions made national news when HBCU presidents met with President Trump in the White House and when the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, gave her first commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University. If that was not impressive enough, Beyoncé turned her 2018 Coachella performances into a tribute to the Black excellence found at HBCUs. The conversation around HBCUs is alive and happening now.

It might come as a shock to some that Black education is not contained in just these 105 institutions. There are 30 other institutions currently designated as Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs). PBIs are approaching their 10-year anniversary since written into law when the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 – a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 – passed. However, Congress first recognized these institutions through the Predominantly Black Institution Act of 2007.

These institutions were designated as PBIs as a result of one of the final provisions of the then Senator, Barack Obama. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education Obama stated, “Congress has long supported the essential role of similar institutions through provisions supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but newer institutions serving a needier, but deserving student populations can now also be recognized and supported.” The move to designate these institutions was intentional and critical to expanding funding opportunities to institutions that serve Black students.

Now you must be wondering if HBCUs are historical, how does one define a PBI? There are 4 criteria that the federal government uses to define a PBI, they are:

  1. Must serve at least 1,000 undergraduate students
  2. Have a high proportion of Pell-eligible undergraduate students in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction
  3. Have a low per full-time undergraduate student expenditure in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction
  4. Must enroll at least 40% African-American students

These criteria are not easy bars to clear. In comparison, when determining eligibility for the 2018 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education found that:

  • 29 of undergraduate serving HBCUs enrolled less than 1,000 undergraduate students
  • 4 HBCUs enrolled few Pell-eligible students compared to similar institutions
  • 16 HBCUs spent more on full-time undergrads than similar institutions
  • 5 HBCUs did not enroll at least 40% of African-American students

If we are holding PBIs to such a high standard, then we need to acknowledge the hard work they are doing. I believe this show of support can come in several forms.

Firstly, higher education scholars should begin researching PBIs. These institutions are currently one of the least studied of all of the Minority Serving Institutions, particularly due to their newness. However, after 10 years there are still no peer-reviewed studies conducted solely on PBIs. There is ample opportunity to not only examine the outcomes PBIs produce but also include these institutions alongside current assessments of HBCUs to give a fuller picture of Black postsecondary education. In addition, over 100 more institutions are on the cusp of becoming PBIs, as of 2017. We, as a higher education community, need to examine the specific needs of these schools in order to assist in overcoming barriers.

Secondly, PBIs are serving as a pipeline for Black students to enter postsecondary education. PBIs are mostly 2-year colleges offering associates degrees in the East, South, and Midwest. If HBCUs partnered with these institutions, then the pipeline could continue for these students. This approach provides more opportunities for students who were unsure of pursuing a 4-year education first, wanted to stay closer to home, or lacked knowledge around HBCUs. Partnerships would not only help students but could also help increase HBCU enrollment – especially due to the proximity of PBIs to HBCUs.

Finally, through media and consumer education, there needs to be a push to highlight these institutions to students and families. These institutions don’t have the legacies of HBCUs to carry them into the Oval Office or to the stage at Coachella. As a community of people interested in the success of Black students, spotlighting PBIs will garner more public support and illuminate the excellent work these institutions are doing to support and uplift Black and first-generation low-income students. Getting research into the hands of media commentators, calling representatives to stress the importance of these institutions, and getting those speaking to high school students to include PBIs as an option is just the first step towards PBIs primetime spot.

Anthony Fowlkes is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education as well as a master’s degree in Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is originally from Troy, Michigan and attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, majoring in both Economics and Asian Studies. Anthony worked throughout his undergraduate career in the Office of the Vice President of Student Life conducting research on the institution’s student population. In his first year of graduate school, Anthony worked with University of Michigan’s Office of Enrollment. Anthony’s research interests include federal financial aid system and the effectiveness of institutional policies that assist in the accurate and timely disbursement of those funds. Anthony was also an intern at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. 

TCUs: Saving Native American Education

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Rachel Bryan

Native Americans have the lowest educational attainment of any race.

In 1990, only 9% of Native Americans under the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 21% of all US citizens.  Fortunately, with the preparation of a two-year tribal college or university (TCU), Native American students are four times more likely to earn their bachelor’s degree than those who entered a mainstream four-year institution out of high school and 86% of students that attend TCUs earn a degree. Why is this gap in educational attainment so vast?

One of the ways in which mainstream institutions are failing their Native American students is that they are simply not addressing the values of Native American students. For example, family is such an important value in Native American culture that it can “take priority over their personal academic progress.” Additionally, Native American families struggle with high rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence, which can affect students and even result in them dropping out of college.

It is also important to note that many Native Americans are first-generation students. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund and former president of Northwest Indian College, has witnessed a lack of preparedness from Native American students because they aren’t having conversations about college with family members and friends: “We’ve encountered students who were coming to college and didn’t know they were going to be responsible for attending classes and asking for help if they needed help…School is starting in a few weeks and we have students just now who are looking for funding. That’s an aspect of college readiness. You have to get ready for college ahead of time.” Not only is a first-generation student coming into a mainstream university at a disadvantage, but they are also rarely given resources specific to their needs by the university upon arrival. Mainstream universities often lump together first-generation students and provide general resources.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, mainstream institutions are Eurocentric and often ignore “cultural traditions, norms, and perspectives of other racial and cultural groups.” Specifically, instruction at these universities is vastly different than the hands-on methods that are praised in the Native American community, which forces over one-third of Native American students into academic remediation. In addition to their Eurocentric curriculum, these institutions often don’t have faculty of Native American descent, which can further discourage Native American students to attend.

Enter TCUs.

First, TCUs recognize the need for culturally relevant material. By incorporating Native American values, tribal languages, and tribal history, their curriculum is culturally sensitive and provides Native American students with programs and courses that meet their needs. Not only is their course content relevant, but it also is taught in a way that empowers students. Many TCUs utilize the Family Education Model, the purpose of which is to increase Native American student retention by affirming linguistic, racial, and ethnic identities, by providing academic and familial counseling, by building a tight-knit community, and by preparing students for mainstream culture. Perhaps most importantly, this model emphasizes that the issues surrounding Native American student retention should not be blamed on the behaviors of Native American students, but on the tension between institutional, student, and familial values.

Second, TCUs recognize the disadvantages present for Native Americans and for those who are first-generation, so they are very encouraging of faculty and staff mentorship. These mentors are often called “follow-through” mentors because if their mentee is interested in transferring to a four-year institution, they aid in this process and maintain contact after the transfer process is complete. In addition to their mentorship role, follow-through mentors also act as tutors and advisors for Native American students and are present in many aspects of students’ lives.

Finally, if they are interested in transferring, TCUs help Native American students adjust to the academic environment of post-secondary education before having to adjust to the social environment of a mainstream institution. The environment of a TCU contrasts with that of a mainstream institution in many ways, including the institutional mission, the size of the institution, and the racial makeup of students, staff, and faculty. Through empowerment and preparation, TCUs serve to “raise a bunch of radicals with the skills to recognize and address social injustice,” as stated by Cheryl Crazy Bull, and these skills essential in preparing TCU graduates in their transition to a mainstream institution.

While mainstream universities by nature can’t provide all of the benefits that TCUs can provide to Native American students, they can learn from TCUs as a whole and attempt to increase Native American enrollment and retention. First, they can avoid generalizing their first-generation students. This postsecondary community represents a cornucopia of experiences and perspectives, and therefore, requires diverse resources. Second, they can establish bridge programs, collaborations, and partnerships with TCUs that will help Native American students transfer if they choose to do so. In sum, TCUs are “truly community colleges” and are doing wonders for the for the Native American community, both in educational attainment and community support.

Rachel Bryan is a second-year M.A. student at the University of Michigan studying Higher Education with a concentration in Diversity and Social Justice. She received her B.A. in Linguistics and a minor in Gender and Health from the University of Michigan as well. Currently, she is a Graduate Intern at the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, where she has run programming and social media campaigns for Native American Heritage Month and Arab Heritage Month, in addition to working with students and staff to run the 46th Annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. Rachel was a summer research assistant for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), she hopes to continue her research on TCUs, as well as work on the CMSI’s various programs.

M@P-ing the Road to Success: Preparing HBCU Students to Pursue Advanced Degrees

Vollmer, Dottie

Dottie Vollmer

For many students, the thought of earning a graduate degree can be intimidating. For some, it may be due to the lack of support while pursuing an undergraduate degree; for others, it may be due to the lack of knowledge about how to pursue, apply, and gain admission to a graduate program. However, pursuing a graduate degree can become more of reality when students are able to engage in proactive, pre-graduate school experiences over the course of their undergraduate careers.

The Mentoring@Purdue (M@P) program was established in 2012 with the goal to address professional development needs, enhance academic success, and increase career readiness of women and underrepresented minority (URM) graduate students pursuing Ag-STEM graduate degrees. In 2014, M@P enhanced its reach beyond the Purdue University campus by creating the M@P Summer Scholars Program (M@P-SSP). The M@P-SSP began with partnerships with six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) but has since expanded to include 11 HBCUs. The purpose of the M@P-SSP is to recruit upper-level, undergraduate or master’s degree students from collaborating 1890 land-grant institutions to ‘experience’ Purdue University and participate in activities that enhance academic success and graduate school readiness. These activities include the opportunity to visit graduate departments in the College of Agriculture, engage with faculty mentors and students, and explore research opportunities. The focus of M@P-SSP is to develop the social support of women and URM students which is critical to increasing the number of URMs pursuing Ag-STEM graduate degrees.

Students who plan to continue their education after obtaining an undergraduate degree may need additional preparation for graduate school coursework, research, or even insights into the graduate school application process. Preparing for graduate school is a thought undergraduate students often defer until their senior year. However, getting a strong start from day one will boost student chances of getting accepted into a graduate program and being successful while there. Past participants of the M@P-SSP indicated a strong desire to learn more about the graduate school application process. To answer the expressed need of helping undergraduate students to become better prepared for graduate school as well as the graduate school application process, the M@P-ing Out Your Future Pre-Graduate Resource Guide (PGRG) was developed. The PGRG was a by-product of a conversation between the M@P co-director and administrators from a partner HBCU.

The PGRG helps lead students through a linear progression of steps that help them clarify their educational and career goals related to completing a graduate degree. Specifically, students participate in learning experiences that help them prepare academically and professionally for success in graduate school as well as help them understand the steps related to navigating the application process. The PGRG helps students prepare for their graduate career earlier in their undergraduate years. While online, graduate school admissions resources exist at other institutions, the PGRG is a fillable tool students can utilize throughout their entire undergraduate career to “M@P” out their graduate school goals and plans. By beginning early, students will have a higher likelihood of being set up for success.

The M@P-ing Out Your Future Pre-Graduate Resource Guide is an 11-chapter resource tool outlining the steps of applying to graduate school as well as providing tips to students about the application process. This guide chronologically outlines the application process from finding letter of recommendation writers to taking the GRE, from approaching potential faculty to applying for an internship. More specifically, chapter one is a timeline to follow starting with early undergraduate years through the last semester of senior year. This chapter provides a one-stop checklist for students to reference throughout the planning process. Chapter two provides charts to track all undergraduate courses needed to graduate and be successful. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a stressful exercise that affects many students who are considering graduate school. Chapter three explains each section of the exam and provides insights, tips, and links to practice questions to elevate students’ self-efficacy and confidence to succeed. Another stressful choice that students need to make is the school and program for graduate education. Chapter four provides a comparison table for students to complete and visually compare characteristics to find the best fit. The PGRG guides students through what they will need and how to complete a graduate school application. Tips for writing a statement of purpose are outlined (Ch. 7) as well as information to find the best professors to ask for letters of recommendation (Ch. 8). Also included in the PGRG is information about approaching faculty members from universities students are applying (Ch. 10) as well as the best options for internships (Ch. 9). The basic graduate school application requirements are also included and outlined in this guide aimed to help students succeed.

While every student’s educational journey is different, this guide is meant to provide a starting point, as well as important check-in points to consider, when preparing for graduate school. Education should be seen as a journey, not a destination. Choices that students make during their undergraduate years have a major impact on their future career, so planning early and staying focused with the help of the PGRG will help to ensure that students get off to a successful start.

Dottie Vollmer is a graduate student in at Purdue University working with Dr. Levon T. Esters. She is the Campus Activities Coordinator for the Mentoring@Purdue Program in the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. Dottie’s research interests include career development, positive youth development, and 4-H Youth Development Programs. You can access the online version of the M@P-ing Out Your Future Pre-Graduate Resource Guide here:

Dear Black People: Respect HBCUs

Black people should value HBCUs the way they value Harvard.  This statement posted by HBCU Pride Nation resonated with me as the underpinnings of my interest in Black colleges.

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Janelle L. Williams

Most people assume the logical conclusion, which is that my interest stems from being an HBCU alumna. However, that is only partially correct. My interest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) started in high school after I made the decision to attend Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Excited to share my final decision with my homeroom class and teacher during college decision day, I was not prepared for the snickers and condescending looks of disapproval I would soon receive.

When I announced, with pride, that I would be attending Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education, an immediate uneasiness came over the classroom. My teacher started to applaud in an effort to motion the applause of my classmates, and they complied. After class, my Black peers, who as if needed to be sure they heard correctly, asked in an out-casting tone: “Are you really going to a Black college (Cheyney)? Why not somewhere better?” I thought to myself “better?” aloud I said, “Did you not hear me say that I am going to the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education?” Like deer in headlights, my peers were bewildered and rebutted that it was 2003 and we (Black students) no longer needed to attend Black colleges because we have other options. I was very disappointed and shocked by their reaction, particularly because my peers unknowingly just regarded HBCUs as subordinate, a vestige of the past, and no longer necessary.

Unfortunately, I spent the remainder of that school year and now my academic career, justifying my decision, advocating and educating Black people on the importance of HBCUs. No, this is not another addendum to the PWI vs HBCU debate, but rather a plea for Black people to have respect for the institutions created with the explicit purpose of the advancement of Black people. Understanding that without these institutions, the current positioning of Black people in the United States would look much different.

Can you imagine the plight of the nation without HBCUs?  It is possible that education in the United States would still be segregated, and possibly still governed by Jim Crow laws.  Brown v. Board of Education, known as the breakthrough desegregation case that legally ended segregation, was tried by HBCU educated and trained lawyers, Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University & Howard University Law School) and Robert L. Carter (Lincoln University & Howard University Law School) in 1954. In 1960, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students, also known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, started a movement that fought against the Jim Crow laws of the South, and impacted the passing of 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Those two events were monumental in giving Black Americans, and all Americans access to the liberties now received.

HBCUs are also are given credit for creating the Black middle class. In the documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Professor and Historian Marybeth Gasman was quoted saying: “Black colleges were educating future doctors and future lawyers and future teachers, and nurses and judges and they were responsible for lifting African Americans out of poverty and they started to create the Black middle class as we know it”. The proceedings and debates of the 106thcongressional record also highlight this fact, in giving credit to HBCUs for producing:

  • 85 percent of Black Doctors
  • 80 percent of Black Federal Judges
  • 75 percent of Black Veterinarians
  • 75 percent of Black Military Officers
  • 70 percent of Black Ph.D.’s
  • 70 percent of Black Dentists
  • 50 percent of Black Teachers
  • 50 percent of Black Attorneys
  • 50 percent of Black Engineers
  • 46 percent of Black Executives
  • 44 percent of Black Journalists

Black colleges exist because Black people were once systematically excluded from attending existing predominately White colleges and universities. For over 180 years, HBCUs have survived and thrived through slavery, World Wars, Jim Crow laws, segregation, integration, and sanctioned legal disparities all while supporting and maintaining a commitment to the education of Black people. At a minimum, this should be reason enough for Black people to respect HBCUs in the same way, if not more than, the way they respect other intuitions of higher education.


Janelle L. Williams is the Assistant Director for Health Policy at The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and a Visiting Scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. In addition, she currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Cheyney University Foundation.

Non-Traditional Student in a Traditional College Setting

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Reginald Terry

In 2009, I was working a dead-end job with no benefits, low pay, and endless bills on top of it. I was tired of not getting ahead and not having anything to call my own. My only other option was to go back to school. But I was in my late 30’s and I knew that it would be harder than it was when I was 18. So, I decided to enroll in the community college first and became accustomed to academia. Then in 2012, I re-enrolled at North Carolina Central University. Attending an HBCU was on my radar since I graduated from high school in 1987. But life showed me otherwise, and I knew that I would have to put college on hold for a while.

After about 25 years of working dead end jobs, I got my first degree and now I was back at my alma mater with students that could be my kids. I was in my early 40’s and going for my bachelor’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism Administration. At first, I was nervous because I thought “Can I do this?” or “Will they accept me?” Being a non-traditional student was going to be hard to say the least.

I began slowly working on getting my grades in order and in time I began to warm up to the younger crowd and I learned a lot from them about their generation and the things that they deal with. My generation had to deal with several different issues: drugs, alcohol, police, not to mention our parents always badgering us about our grades and other stuff. And this generation is no different, only they have the internet and cell phones when all we had were home phones and pagers. They learned about the history of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when I lived them. When some of them would ask me how it was, I would try to describe some of the things that I could remember.

They warmed up to me and finally after my 2nd year, I had gained some good friends that helped me get acclimated to being a student. I became involved with the Centennial Scholars Program where I met some good friends that helped me grow. Becoming a mentor to some of the men helped me hone my skills of mentoring and communication while making lifelong friends that will last a lifetime. Working in the office allowed me to meet many of the important people around campus like previous Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gary Brown, and the new Chancellor Johnson Akinleye.

Being a non-traditional student has shown me that no matter what age, you are never too old to learn. I couldn’t have made it without four valuable tips that helped me cope and become involved with the campus community:

  1. Always seek out help when needed. I had some troubles with getting the information taught and retaining it. Once I went to the professors and talked to them about what they were teaching and what my learning style was, I found it much easier to get the info to help me. Also seek out tutors and your fellow classmates to help you. Many of them are probably in the same boat as you and when you study together, you get to know them and they get to know you.
  2. Get involved with campus groups. My involvement with the Centennial Scholars Program at NCCU gave me valuable insight and knowledge on what goes on around the campus. I got to meet several important people like Cornell West, Myron Rolle, and several others. Even if you just become a member of an organization, you will feel like you are a part of the “college experience”.
  3. Don’t act like a “know it all.” Just because you are older, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to learn. Many of my classmates could be my children. But when you listen to them talk, they have legitimate concerns about their future just like you have. A good friend once told me that you should “get in where you fit in”. If you don’t know what they are talking about, ask questions, sit and listen, then if you have an opinion, HOLD IT! Many times they just want someone to listen to them. If you can help them work out their problems, then HELP.
  4. Trust the process. When I attended Durham Technical Community College, I met an advisor that helped me through everything. She always said, “trust the process”. At first, I didn’t understand but after I graduated and went on to NCCU, I finally understood what she meant. You may feel that you aren’t getting anything done or that you are working hard and not getting nowhere. Don’t fret. You must start believing in yourself that you can do this. Once you start, then you will see the process and the end goal. Graduation!! You know you can do it because if you didn’t then you wouldn’t be in school right now. Congratulations and keep moving forward!

Reginald Terry is a graduate student at Temple University majoring in Tourism and Hospitality Management with a concentration in Marketing. He completed his undergrad at North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC where he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality and Tourism Administration. He also has an Associate’s in Applied Science in Business Management from Durham Technical Community College in Durham. He has worked in the hospitality industry for over 15 years and decided to change his career path and wants to pursue his PhD and become a professor. He stays in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. He loves his family, especially his two great nieces, who he is trying to be a positive role model for them and others.

A Suggestion for Improving HBCU Leadership: Co-Presidents (yes, really)


Karen Gross

There has been no shortage of media coverage of the challenges of filling leadership positions and enabling quality presidents at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Not only are there abundant presidential openings at HBCUs but the tenure of HBCU presidents is shorter than that of presidents at non-HBCU institutions (the terms of which are also shortening as half the presidents report that they plan to serve for less than five years).

The departure of President John Wilson at Morehouse, one of the best-known HBCUs, was a wakeup call for me and perhaps many others about the HBCU leadership complexities. Recognizing these difficult issues, the Thurgood Marshall Fund helped form a search firm to help remediate these issues. The appointment of Ruth Simmons as the permanent, not interim President of Prairie View A&M University, sends a different link of signal, suggesting for me the possibility that more “retired” presidents will consider giving back, including to HBCUs, as their careers wind down.

Make no mistake about this: leading a college or university of any sort in today’s world is a serious challenge and the job is getting harder not easier with the passage of time. The challenges are wide-ranging from fund and friend-raising to quests for academic excellence and its quality measurement to developing a healthy culture on campus without sexual assault and harassment to access and financial support for students who are not from wealthy families or elite high schools and prep schools. Add to all this the problems that arise in athletics, running an art (and other) museums (and their collections), dealing with deferred maintenance and wrestling with the parameters of free speech.

And, we have a federal government that is challenging the role and importance of a college degree, a government that is also forcing us to re-think institutional finance due to changes in the tax laws that impact many while reflecting deeply on notions of truth and power as well as civility, cooperation, and collaboration. Not all states are exactly higher education aficionados either.

Perhaps this is why there is even a recent book with the frightening title: Presidencies Derailed.

But, leaders of HBCU face added challenges (recognizing that these institutions are quite different each from the other): some of these institutions are small in size (a threat in an of itself), they have relatively small size of endowments, they have long serving boards with well-known proclivities (not all positive) and face the particular needs and preparation of their students, many of whom hail from high schools that are suboptimal.

For me, the students attending HBCUs are the very students we want and need to educate well. Indeed, these institutions create opportunities for a myriad of students who otherwise might not progress to college. And, for those students for whom HBCUs are their institution of first choice, we need institutions with stable leadership, doors to opportunity and quality education that will enable their graduates to enter the workforce success. (How students find out about and enroll at HBCUs is another set of issues, although beyond the scope of this piece.)

Here’s an idea to consider to improve leadership at HBCUs: co-presidencies.

Recognizing that this approach (about which I have been writing with some frequency) is filled with risk, it also offers numerous benefits. I think some (note the word “some” not “all”) HBCUs could benefit greatly from co-presidencies. Here’s why.

We shouldn’t underestimate the price institutions pay – literally and figuratively – for failed presidencies and failed searches. And, the rush of recent resignations of longer serving presidents is also not exactly a sign of leadership good health. And, calls for resignation, even if not realized immediately, are institutionally disruptive.

So, why not consider a solution that has been tried outside academe. For example, co-presidencies are increasingly common in business. In late 2017, Apollo Global Management LP became the most recent example. Decades ago now, the GSE at Harvard had co-academic deans. And, within the academic sphere, there are several instances of Interim Co-Presidents.

I could detail the risks of co-presidencies but people surely can imagine those with little effort. (Just picture parents fighting over childrearing approaches in theory and practice.) What’s harder is to see the benefits and demonstrate that is some not all situations a co-presidency makes extraordinary sense. And, those critiquing my idea misstate that I mean for co-presidencies to be appointed at every institution. Wrong. That is not what I am saying; nor would such appointment necessarily work. Knowing when they might work within an institution’s needs, culture, structure, challenges, and history is key.

Instead of thinking about co-presidents like parents or conductors of an orchestra (a common analogy used when thinking about leadership generally and leading an educational institution with its multiple interests (sections) in particular), ponder surgical teams — two humans as opposed to a human surgeon and a robotic president (something even I am not suggesting at colleges and universities). Yes, there used to be a lead-surgeon in most surgeries but in many of today’s complex medical situations, different established attending surgeons work together on different body parts and body systems as co-surgeons. They are partners in ensuring the well-being of their patients,

Surgeons may fight on television and perhaps in an occasional OR suite. But, were I a guessing person, good surgeons learn to work together and prefer working with fellow surgeons and anesthesiologists and nurses they know. Recent studies suggest some noticeable benefits of co-surgeries (with two attending physicians not one lead surgeon and one resident) although the literature is still not robust. And let’s not ask about the complexities of the billing and insurance coverage issues in these contexts.

While some surgeon decisions are grand in size and impact, it is not as if every decision is one with massive consequences. Small decisions are delegated all the time on campuses. The big strategic decisions are usually ones that require both time and reflection and often require Board input among other groups; two people can do that as well or perhaps better than one person. And, if there is an emergency or a disaster and an immediate decision must be decided, perhaps the co-presidents could agree with the Board ahead of time as to who makes that call or the responsible person could change from month to month or year to year.

And, if there were to be consideration of co-presidents, they would have to be interviewed both together and separately. I can see interview teams asking each possible co-president to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his/her counterpart. And there would need to be opportunities to see them engaging with each other and with others including faculty, staff, and students. Trustees too.

And, in the context of HBCUs, might it be possible for HBCUs to consider a non-minority candidate as part of a co-presidential team? Don’t panic here; I am not suggesting stodgy white men as co-presidents. I can hear the hue and cry: the white president would dominate and worse, not survive.

Perhaps the co-president candidate is someone of a different gender, from a different ethnicity or who lived in poverty (white intergenerational poverty) or suffered abuse or toxic stress or a high ACE score. To personalize this, as I detail in my book Breakaway Learners, those who have been traumatized have skillsets that can make them very able leaders, including at and perhaps most particularly at HBCUs given the students that are enrolled.

So, how would one come up with individuals who could be co-presidents? I think we’d need to change the paradigm for how presidents are identified and selected. I also think there would have to be a movement, a shift, in how the hiring is done, a response to the realities of the jobs college/university presidents face. To be clear, I am not suggesting a matching like in the television shows “Married at First Sight” or “The Bachelor.”

I can think of a half-dozen people right now with whom I would and could happily serve as a co-president (were I ever to consider another presidency, another issue altogether).

Here are two examples:

I can think of a person who has been a law school administrator who went to the same college as I did, decades earlier. She is smart and thoughtful and remarkably organized. We have worked on projects together (not in the same institution). We have read each other’s work. We have shared ideas about education and life. We have discussed faculty development. For the record, she is a minority.

Then, there is an individual with whom I have worked who heads up diversity programs and who has been a vice-president at a larger institution. He grew up in Puerto Rico (so we both speak Spanish); he is extraordinary talented at motivating students to bring their best selves to the table and even when they fail, he is able to get them back on track. He is technologically savvy, deeply self-reflective and a wonderful grant writer.

And, neither of these individuals would be scared to voice their views if they differed from my own. They all have.

My point is this: no one person in this day and age can have all the skills it takes to be a college or university president. The list is simply too long and too diverse. And, while a leader can surround him or herself with excellent talent and a sensational senior leadership team, ideally in areas in which the leader is not as strong, there is a value to considering a different model: co-leadership.

Co-presidencies would, I think, increase the pool of candidates at HBCUs, including curbing the loneliness at the top and giving added support with respect to the challenges leaders face. Co-presidents foster diversity in all ways – age, race, skills, ethnicity, experience. Next, they would send a loud and clear message about collaboration and cooperation and the busting of silos. An academic could partner with a government or business official. A financially savvy person could partner with someone with vast expertise in student life. It is about putting one’s ego in the right place and giving glory to another and accepting blame. It is about, fundamentally, some the very skills we want students to acquire: problem-solving, teamwork and decency.

I think a co-presidency would set an example for HBCUs and put them on the cutting edge of new approaches to build their institutions and leadership. Co-presidencies role model risk-taking and out-of-the-box approaches in real time. It shows the capacity to try new ideas and explore new territory thoughtfully and with deep regard for the risks and benefits. And, it highlights the real world: the complexity of problems we face and the need to ask for and get help – not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.

Co-presidencies are not toys of the moment; there are rich examples and case studies that can be evaluated. I see co-presidencies at this moment in time as enabling key educational institutions in American culture, including HBCUs, to be lead with expertise, grace, equanimity, talent, and collaboration. And, it is reflective of how many decisions are needed and how many are ones that can be shared.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there are added upsides to co-presidencies for HBCUs that we do not yet know about or cannot anticipate. I, for one, believe those positive possibilities exist.

Based on a similar article published by the Aspen Journal of Ideas

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Reclaiming Teaching, Learning and Inclusive Research at HBCUs


Robert K. Hoggard

It is quite clear that many HBCUs across this country struggle with funding their impactful missions. Indeed, we have seen a mass exodus as many HBCUs over the years have transitioned from private to public. It seems that over this time the mission of HBCUs and priorities have shifted.

There’s a crisis going on with Maryland’s public HBCUs–I would like to focus on Morgan State University (Morgan). This year, Morgan is one of nine HBCU’s celebrating the sesquicentennial of their founding. However, over the years, HBCU’s such as Morgan have forgotten the importance of history.

A couple of months ago, an independent monitor was appointed by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake to launch distinct high-demand academic programs at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES).

Daniel Douglas-Gabriel wrote in the Washington Post, “She (The U.S. District Judge) instructed the monitor to provide an undetermined amount of annual funding for marketing, student recruitment, financial aid and any related initiative over the next decade. Blake also insisted that any program proposed by a Maryland university must be reviewed by the monitor to ensure it will not harm the historically black schools.”

Why will the money be appropriated for marketing, recruitment and financial aid rather than teaching, learning, and research? If we want to revitalize academic programs at HBCUs, we need to invest in different teaching, education, and research. Especially in the climate we live in today, where we seem to be even more divided by race, HBCUs must attract world-class faculty. If we do, we’ll continue to see more schools increase their student body.

We must watch this court case in Maryland because it shapes the broader future of other HBCUs across the country. As financial crises persist, many schools are thinking about public status and merging with larger Primarily White Institutions. We need to be sure we are preparing to innovate young minds to serve as presidents of HBCUs because it will take new ideas to leverage the mission of our HBCUs in this survival economy.

Furthermore, we need the brightest African-American minds to teach at our HBCUs. Imagine if Cornel West taught at Morehouse rather than Harvard. Visualize Michael Eric Dyson teaching at Morgan State rather than Georgetown. Ponder Eddie Glaude teaching at Bowie State rather than Princeton. It seems to me that the Black creme de la creme are more concerned about having the biggest salary rather than having the biggest impact.

Mary Ann Fay resigned as an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Geography at Morgan State University, a department that once rivaled other programs throughout the country, led by some of the most prominent historians throughout the globe, including Benjamin Arthur Quarles, Thomas Cripps, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. With the push towards STEM-based research and the millions of dollars in grant money that is driving this push, humanities-based programs such as the History Department are being choked out. Fay provides a rare look at this current dilemma at HBCU’s in her Washington Post publication, writing, “Transformation from above must be matched with transformation from below. Today, faculty at Morgan State work within an authoritarian political culture that restricts their autonomy and creativity. There is no faculty senate, and professors and advanced graduate students do not receive sufficient research funding.”

And so, I posit the state needs to adequately appropriate funding that supports teaching, learning, and research in all disciplines at all four of Maryland’s public HBCUs. Morgan State and the others must start properly navigating the raging waters from the inside. It seems that much of the focus is to lean on the government for assistance. This should not be the case as HBCUs were founded to provide Blacks with places to earn a decent education. Are we beginning to lose proper standing of our HBCUs at the expense of integration into the plantation-based structures of White schools?

Robert K. Hoggard, M.A. is a graduate of American Baptist College and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He has written more than 200 articles on HBCUs at HBCU Buzz Inc. and is closely watching the life of HBCUs in a period of social unrest and injustice against African-American people. He is the Counselor in The Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Keuka College.

“All My Skinfolk, Ain’t Kinfolk”: An HBCU counternarrative


Patrice Bryan

I am tired of the idealistic conversations we have about HBCUs and what they provide for their students. I get that we want to promote them for how relevant they are. We want the world outside of HBCUs to “put some respeck” on what it is we do. But the conversations need more depth! How much do you really expect me as a disgruntled student to care about the historically racist policies and funding limitations when my stomach is growling in the library; because, I’m out of swipes for the week and the lady in the cafeteria refused to scoop me out just a little more Mac n cheese on Soul Food Wednesday? HBCUs have a responsibility to keep it real for the students who they’ve historically served. I’m tired of hearing that I should be at an HBCU simply for the sake of the struggle. My story highlights my biggest issues surrounding the HBCU conversation, a lack of accountability and a culture of fear and silence.

I’ve been to three different HBCUs at different educational levels. The idea that I was simply going to feel free because I was “skinfolk” was quickly dismantled during my first experience. I spent several weeks going through culture shock, trying to figure out where the other Caribbean students were and why they refused to play Reggae/Dancehall music at school parties. During my second HBCU experience, I felt under siege as a woman. All the black male initiatives, programming centered around black males, and the administrative undermining of the women’s studies program had me feeling like I wasn’t wanted at that institution unless I was going to be quiet.

I’m a graduate of a primarily White institution (PWI). My bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies and minor in Writing and Rhetoric are brought to you by Stony Brook University (SUNY), in New York. During my senior year of undergrad, I spent the academic year at an HBCU, courtesy of the National Student Exchange program. This experience was my first exposure to #HBCULife outside of A Different World. Ultimately, my time there solidified a desire to attend an HBCU for graduate school. I went back to Stony Brook to do the M.A. program in Africana Studies (because my professors loved me, I loved them, and they are the closest thing to adopted family that I have) and was accepted to a Ph.D. program at an HBCU for Fall 2016. Then started the worst year of my complicated Black life.

Lack of Accountability

I had to pay for this Ph.D.. I didn’t mind because they had a program here that could not be found anywhere else by name and I absolutely needed to be a part of this. Plus, the obvious, it was an HBCU. I was promised some monies. With the modest amount, I’d planned to use to cover my share of rent for a bit less than a year while I worked part time to cover other expenses. It wasn’t until after I arrived on campus that I realized that I wouldn’t be getting a dime. The person who quoted me these funds had since been removed and all the new person in charge could offer was, “we don’t have any money left”. I was jobless, almost 1,000 miles away from home, and I’d just depleted all my savings securing housing for a lease that was already signed. It wasn’t until the very end of this academic year that I would be told some students were accidentally “overlooked” for their share of funds because of what amounted to a computer error.

When I finally got up the nerve to share my disgust, financial despair, and downtrodden spirits, I was met with ridiculous suggestions centered around “grit” and sacrifice. I expressed concerns about my deteriorating mental health and constant financial woes, including almost being evicted. My main concern was the level of performance we were expected to meet while having absolutely nothing to work with to produce. Response from a faculty member amounted to: “I didn’t know anything about this, not my problem. But, I hope you don’t decide to stay.” Admittedly, I was hurt. I never expected to receive anything but genuine sympathy and a strategy to help rectify my situation. I reached out to several of my peers who warned me in one way or another: Don’t respond.

Culture of Fear

In my observation, there was a culture of fear and an aura of oppression around the graduate student experience that I’d never felt before. Having people advise me against even trying to reason with this faculty member because of potential retaliation made me sick to my stomach. Of course, I had no way of knowing if this would actually occur, but who was I to take that chance? What was an HBCU if it only recreated oppression that left you voiceless? What was an HBCU if I could not have a conversation kinfolk to kinfolk about “beef” I had with their systems? The whispered stories I heard in that year about people who spoke out and were subsequently frozen out were bone chilling. Students were being told to choose conference registration over paying bills (there was no money available for conferences), to perhaps sleep on couches so they wouldn’t have to take on full time jobs, to write next to a candle if their lights got turned off (I’m exaggerating, maybe). All this, so they could subscribe to an abstract concept of the greater good that was supposed to be attainment of the Ph.D..

Many students bought into this system in one way or another. Some felt they had no alternatives, others believed in the theoretical idea of what the program was supposed to be, and some just assumed that this was a normal graduate student experience. I remember being told by a student that “the others” were tired of reading my Facebook statuses and hearing my complaints about what was wrong with the program and the school. Since I was leaving, I was supposed to leave quietly.

The Takeaway

I left with a story, and I’m not afraid to tell it. I’ve recently decided that if I never get a job in academia, telling my story would always be worth it. Although I’ve chosen to enroll at another HBCU, where I do enjoy being, I still resent conversations that don’t engage narratives like my own. It’s not enough to point out the financial and systemic limitations without engaging the subjugated voices that suffer from it the most. It is not enough to say that the issues at HBCUs are historical problems that will take forever to remedy. And, it is definitely irresponsible to assume less of a student, and their commitment to blackness, because they make the choice to go to a PWI to avoid these problems.

At some point, these conversations should include points and suggestions that surround the need for HBCU administrators and faculty to take accountability for any role they play in causing their students to feel isolated and disgruntled. These conversations should bring to light the implicit strategy that keeps these stories from being told and dealt with. There are undergraduates at HBCUs right now, struggling to overthrow oppressive campus cultures and, like me, all they have is the power of blogging and social media to get anyone to listen.

Let’s do right by them.

Patrice Bryan is currently a PhD student at Morgan State University in Higher Education Administration where her research interests include Black women undergraduates’ access to mentoring and the graduate educational experience at HBCUs. She is also serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA on a project in Maryland to increase the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships statewide.

HBCU Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities


Louis Bolling

The story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the Civil War and influenced the course of our nation, yet remains one of America’s most important untold stories. Both celebrated and misunderstood, HBCUs continue to spark fierce debates about the relevance of the schools today.

Led by one of the foremost chroniclers of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today, Stanley Nelson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first and only feature documentary and multi-platform project to research, gather, and share a rich mosaic of stories that relay the history of HBCUs.

“Thoroughly examining the history of HBCUs not only allowed me to highlight their importance within black communities,” Nelson and his team share a vivid mosaic of stories from HBCU students, faculty, staff, and alumni that illustrate the ideals of democracy, equality, and pursuit of the American Dream.

“I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and—in their resistance—created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come,” Nelson writes in his director’s statement.

A self-described “storyteller, filmmaker and teacher,” Nelson is a recipient of numerous honors over the course of his career, including five Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences. In 2013, the director, writer and producer of documentaries received the National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama.

Known for such films including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016), Freedom Summer (2014) and Freedom Riders (2010), Nelson’s recent creation, Tell Them We Are Rising, is an unprecedented two-hour PBS documentary film and interactive platform that captures the vibrant, moving and complex 150-year history of HBCUs.

“It was essential that this film highlight authentic, personal accounts alongside archival footage, letters, diaries, photographs, and even home movies of the people who have lived the HBCU experience.”

“The legacy of these institutions is not marked only by milestones and achievements; it is encapsulated by the minds and lives of the people who walked those storied halls,” said Nelson, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who was awarded an individual Peabody for his body of work last year.

Special thank you to @CPBmedia for their support in the #HBCURising Campus Tour along w/ the #HBCUs & public stations hosting screenings

Co-Founder, with his wife Marcia Smith, and Executive Director of Firelight Media, a non-profit provider of technical education and professional support to emerging documentarians, Nelson is also Co-Founder of the for-profit documentary production company, Firelight Films.

Next week, Firelight Media will launch the #HBCURising Campus Tour featuring screenings of Tell Them We Are Rising and panel discussions with Nelson, university leaders, prominent alumni, and special guests that will address issues explored in the documentary.

“We felt it was very important to showcase the film to students on HBCU campuses because this is a vital part of our African-American and American history,” said Nelson.

The tour is a major part of HBCU Rising, the year-long multi-platform engagement project designed to drive dialogue sparked by the film among a variety of audiences. The film is the centerpiece of the effort, #HBCURising, which highlights partnerships with national organizations, high-profile events, StoryCorps audio stories, video shorts, and an all-generation, all-school HBCU Digital Yearbook.

“Many students and even alumni are not aware of the deep history of how and why HBCUs were created and the foundation for success they provided for African Americans. We appreciate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s support and the partnership on the ground with local public television and radio stations to make this tour possible.”

Major funding for the film and associated events has been provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of the public media initiative, American Graduate. The 90-minute film will air nationally on the acclaimed PBS series Independent Lens on Monday, February 19, 2018, 9 pm – 10:30 pm ET.

Reprinted with permission from Huffington Post.

Louis Bolling serves the University of Pennsylvania community as an Interfaith Fellow to the Athletics & Recreation Community with the Office of the Chaplain. He holds a BS in Physical Education with a concentration in Sports Administration from Morgan State University. He is a freelance writer with The Philadelphia Tribune and Huffington Post. His interests include athletic administration at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, sport for development and peace, Olympism, university-assisted community schools and community-based sports issues.