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Choosing to Attend a Historically Black College or University (or Not): An Interview

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This summer I have the privilege of having an undergraduate research assistant as part of a special program to encourage undergraduate research at Penn. My research assistant, Yvonne Hyde-Carter, is a sophomore interested in communications. She's also African American and grew up in the Philadelphia area. As part of the mentoring process that goes along with undergraduate research assistantship, I spend a lot of time talking to Yvonne about her goals and her future. As much of my research pertains to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), I asked her if she had ever considered applying to an HBCU. Based on her response, I decided to interview her for this blog post. Here is the interview:

Marybeth: Did you consider applying to an HBCU? Why did you choose Penn?

Yvonne: When I sent in my application to an HBCU a wave of emotions overcame me. First, I am a black woman with an HBCU legacy. My maternal grandmother and great-grandparents attended the same HBCU at a time when many blacks were not privileged enough to receive a higher education. I felt a sense of pride and responsibility to follow in their footsteps and continue the family tradition (granted, a tradition that my mother did not uphold). Additionally, I felt a budding desire to partake in the rich cultural heritage that exists at HBCUs -- one that is very different from that of the predominately elite, mainstream culture in which I grew up. As someone who attended the same small, independent Quaker school in the heart of Philadelphia for fourteen years, I was used to being one of only four or five black students within a given class. I was looking forward to no longer be looked upon as the "token" black girl. I looked forward to black students and faculty, drum lines, homecomings, football games, and Greek life at an HBCU. I wanted to delight in my "blackness" for a change. Plus, as so many reminded me throughout my application process, I would have the rest of my life to be a fighting minority within the majority white, working world.

Marybeth: If you were a legacy and felt so emotional about attending an HBCU, why didn't you do it?

Yvonne: Even with all of the hopes and expectations for my life at an HBCU there was one emotion that trumped them all: fear. Despite my legacy and the excitement, (and even the full scholarship), I was afraid to go to an HBCU. Having gone to a predominately white school for my entire life, there was a lot of pressure to prove myself. This was evident in my extracurricular activities -- from class president, to president of the Black Student Union, to business co-chair of the yearbook, to co-captain of the varsity field hockey team, to graduating cum laude and being one of the few black students to do so. As one of the few black students in my grade and in my school as a whole, I felt a responsibility to represent the black community and represent it well. I know this was silly, and somewhat unrealistic of me, given that one black person cannot possibly stand for all blacks everywhere. However, I had a feeling that even as I assimilated so seamlessly into the white culture that had adopted me at age six, I had to protect what was inherently mine. Though it may seem that "best" is a relative term, in my white world, proving myself did not equate to HBCUs with names that most of my classmates had never heard of. Proving myself meant outdoing average, even when my white counterparts were doing average. Average was OK for them, but I had to be extraordinary.

Marybeth: Did wanting to prove that you could make it in a white world serve as one of the reasons you applied to Ivy League institutions?

Yvonne: It occurred to me that if wanted to be competitive with my white counterparts, I would have to speak their language. It was then that my dreams of basking in my blackness and escaping my lifelong role as the brown skin anomaly were put on hold. While many of my black family and friends celebrated my acceptance into such an institution with such a longstanding history and relevance to the black community, to the white world that I was a part of, the HBCU that I sought to attend the following fall was illegitimate.

Marybeth: When you look back on your decision to attend Penn instead of an HBCU, what are your thoughts?

Yvonne: As I partner with you this summer, conducting research on the success stories of students at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), I have gained a new perspective on my fears and the feeling of illegitimacy that I faced when I was in the process of applying to college. I did not come to a final decision about which school I would attend solely based on the cost or the distance from my home or even how much I loved the institution. Much of my decision was based on the prospect of whether or not I would have access to certain networks, opportunities, resources, and most of all, job offers after I graduated. I felt that there was something powerful in the Penn brand. It would help define my destiny after I graduated. Penn is definitely the right school for me. I cannot imagine being anywhere else. This Ivy League school offers me the best of both worlds. My research this summer has reaffirmed for me the integral role that HBCUs, and all MSIs for that matter, play in the education system in the U.S. Furthermore, my research has led me to discover literature suggesting that statistically many HBCUs offer better post-grad prospects for African Americans than the post-grad prospects of minorities who graduate from predominately white institutions. Nevertheless, I know that my application journey is one that many can relate to, and it speaks to a bigger issue for HBCUs and MSIs at large -- the image of inferiority and illegitimacy in American higher education overall.

Marybeth: How can HBCUs counter notions of inferiority? There is a lot of data that shows that HBCUs have a significant impact on their students and you are right, HBCUs are responsible for sending more than their share of students on to graduate school. How can they attract students like you?

Yvonne: HBCUs need to play up their assets and not only their cultural heritage. They need to promote their educational promise. HBCUs should highlight their successes and find public outlets to make them known beyond African American communities. On the other hand, college applicants should embrace their own personal course of action (meaning, they shouldn't allow others' opinions and ideas to threaten their dreams). Though I am happy with my decision to attend Penn, the college process would have been much more smooth if I did not have so many nagging opinions coloring my thoughts. Likewise, to my fellow students of color, who, like me, went to top notch schools all of their lives, and actively pursued and excelled in being the best, I suggest being open to different definitions of "the best." What's best for some is not best for all.

College student choice is complicated and in fact, even more complicated for African American students who often feel conflicted due to the impact that their choice has on others - those in black communities and in their own families. Yvonne grappled with issues of prestige, peer pressure, stigma, racial immersion, and future networks. Her story is typical and reveals the complexity of college admissions and college choice.

Students choose to attend HBCUs for a variety of reasons, including academic programs, family legacy, location, price, and the safe and empowering spaces they provide. Yet, there is much competition from majority institutions. It is vital that HBCUs tell their stories of success far and wide so that students like Yvonne, even at a young age, can see the merits and benefits of attending them. In the end, she may have still have attended Penn but her decision would have been much better informed and perhaps she wouldn't continue to wonder what it would have been like to attend an HBCU -- the legacy of her grandparents.