HBCU Week Special: HBCUs, #BlackExcellence and Mental Health – Part 1

BY NIKKI ADEBIYI, FOUNDER @ BOUNCE BLACK

I’ve always wanted to study in the States, but previous attempts fell through due to severe depression. As I reflect on those disappointments, I think about their possible root cause: an all-consuming drive to be distinctive and excellent. And not just any kind of excellence, #BlackExcellence.

A hashtag, a movement, a mantra. “Black Excellence” is a phrase Black millennials and Gen Zers tend to slap on every achievement that highlights the “best” of Black people at their best. 

Graduated top of the class? Black Excellence. 

Leading a Fortune 500 company or six figure business of your own? Black Excellence. 

The latest addition to the hallway of First Black Something Somethings™? Black Excellence.

To be young, gifted and Black is a blessing, for sure. But I started to think about the pressure and pitfalls of the culture around it when I found myself in spaces where the question of my wellbeing was rushed out of the way in order to focus on what I do or plan to do for a living. My favourites were “sowhat are you up to these days?” and “so… what’s next?” (</end sarcasm>). 

Existing in those environments while experiencing mental health crises was exhausting at best, and suffocating at worst. It’s hard to be around people who pry and obsess about what your next steps are when your latest big achievement is just getting out of bed. And when your value as an acquaintance is measured only by what you can bring to someone’s network, being alone is the next best alternative.

Years into recovery though, I have a restored sense of self, and find myself ambitious once again. This time, with a healthier understanding and acceptance of my limits. Still, as I warm to the idea of a return to student life, I am drawn to the Meccas for #BlackExcellence: America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

If you’re not already familiar with them, HBCUs are higher education institutions that were created primarily for Black Americans before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. There are 101 of them still in existence, and they are being celebrated this week for National HBCU Week in the US.

While I know the pressure to live up to Black Excellence at a diverse yet predominantly White university, I wondered what it’s like to experience that narrative in a predominantly Black academic context. In the UK, the closest institution to an HBCU is The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and perhaps also Brunel University London which boasted 58% of their student population being from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in 2018/19.

Still, keen as I am on studying abroad, I wanted to know about HBCU life and culture. So, I invited some friends and people in my network who do have that experience to share their perspectives.

Here is Part One of the highlights of what 11 HBCU alumni and one Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) alumna had to say.

Their overall experience of HBCUs

From K[indergarten] to 12[th Grade] I was always the only “black” person in my class and attending an HBCU made me feel like I was finally a part of a community. HBCU celebrated everyone for who they are. HBCU introduced me to the history I was deprived from growing up.

Germima Mounier (pictured), Florida A&M University (FAMU)

The culture of my HBCU was similar to a family reunion. I never felt left out, unheard, isolated, or inferior. The culture of the classroom was intimate as well. I never sat in a class with more than 30 classmates. The student to teacher ratio made life easier for me in regards to learning/asking questions.

Trestin Gamble, Mississippi Valley State University

An HBCU gives students of color the chance to experience education in an environment where they can feel included. It is the biggest lesson in diversity imaginable. Various cultures and ethnicities are represented and the student can fully immerse themselves in the otherworldly experience that going to an HBCU is.

Micah Temple, Norfolk State University 

The benefits of studying in a predominantly Black environment

Diversity within the diaspora. There is rich, robust diversity and uniqueness within black culture, that I believe is more deeply experienced and appreciated within the HBCU experience. In a nation that has historically devalued and undermined [Black people], HBCUs carry a sense of royalty and identity in both the living and learning, that shapes your calling and future as you matriculate through your educational journey.

Kanita Benson, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (The oldest of HBCUs, established in 1837 as the ‘African Institute’ before being renamed the ‘Institute of Colored Youth’. By 1983 it was officially recognised as ‘Cheyney University’ after American businessman George Cheyney, upon whose farm the institution is located)

We were all black. I had an opportunity to explore who I am outside my race. My eyes were also opened to how diverse being black is. It was a naturally nurturing environment. When everyone is black, there’s an underlying universal understanding. Many things don’t need to be explained. There’s a unique element of freedom. It’s beautiful. It’s so enjoyable. It’s home. Something special always happens when you bring black people together.

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Every class is centered around Black History and our experiences. We had engaging conversations about the World’s perception of us in the media, colorism in the Black community, and other stigmas we deal with on a daily basis. [Also,] contrary to popular beliefs, HBCUs are very diverse. People from all over the world come to America to attend an HBCU. The events held on campus are incomparable and there is always a celebrity on campus. The best part is Homecoming, it’s usually a big party and feels like one big family reunion.

Germima Mounier, FAMU

An environment of academic excellence is created without the dismissal of Black heritage. You will be empowered to love Black culture and pursue a career path that will not only benefit you but encourage you to give back to your community. The benefits are endless. Affordable tuition, a sense of belonging, and scholarships for literally every and anything. 

Davine Anelle, Howard University

You’re exposed to a fuller Black experience. Considering Blackness is not a monolith, it’s an opportunity to engage your identity within a scholastic space. It’s a more holistic education that feeds both mind, soul, and spirit.

Jana Wallace, Spelman College

A Black lady in administration will always find some kind of money for you for school.

Emanuel Williams, Alabama A&M University

The relationships with other young Black women who are doing amazing things, and all of the opportunities I had to gain professional experiences and to travel around the country and the world!

Faith Reid, Spelman College

I loved being able to learn from professors who reflected the kind of person a student could become as their thoughts and perspectives matured.

Maurice Wilson, Morris College

We weren’t the minority in that setting. We were the majority. We were comfortable being who we were. As a Caribbean woman, I felt like I could not only be my black self, but my Caribbean self. I loved that a lot of my professors weren’t just there for the money, but there to empower and that they really taught with passion.

Ronica Hicks, Medgar Evers College (a non-HBCU PBI as it was established in 1970 as part of CUNY)

Some challenges of studying at an HBCU or PBI

Honestly, the challenges are the underlying problems of competition. Where we see each other as friends and family, we also see each other as threats to get ahead. In my opinion, Black people see each other as enemies in regards to success. I see that in almost every aspect of life though. It just transfers into the HBCU context.

Trestin Gamble, Mississippi State Valley University

The fact that it’s so expensive. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue for me as an exchange student. If I had to pay Spelman fees, it wouldn’t have been feasible for me at the time.

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

International recognition – many people outside of the USA, and even within, don’t know about HBCUs. If they know, they KNOW, but if they don’t, they think you went to some random university. That’s not a huge issue because your amazing experience speaks for itself, but it would be great if HBCUs were more well-known and people knew about their history.

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Unfortunately, HBCUs are under-funded, so some resources are limited.

Germima Mounier, FAMU

Infrastructure enhancements are not as up to date as they should be. I believe a variety of online programs would push the HBCU community to the next level.

Davine Anelle, Howard University

You learn the hard way how to negotiate your funding, defend your grade, and advocate for your needs quickly both inside and outside the classroom. It’s mad annoying, yet you find your voice, which is so necessary.

Jana Wallace, Spelman College

HBCUs are not valued in some academic circles, so a high achieving high schooler might not consider attending an HBCU. If the benefits and success of HBCU graduates was more widespread, this might help more high school seniors consider them for college.

Faith Reid, Spelman College

Colourism and the silly gap between African American students and Caribbean students.

Ronica Hicks, Medgar Evers College (*PBI)

Student mental health at HBCUs

When I first arrived, I was incredibly homesick and I think going through such a big life change (moving from London to Atlanta alone at the age of 20) unearthed some emotions I hadn’t dealt with. Thankfully, Spelman had a very accessible counselling service. This was my first experience of counselling/therapy as it was so useful. I had a couple of sessions with a wonderful black woman and it was really helpful! 

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

I think having curriculums that took my blackness into account, being taught by black professors, and not having to think about my race at any point had a positive impact on my mental health.

Rachael Owhin, Spelman College

Florida A & M introduced me to mental health and the crisis in our community. Being a student granted you 12 free sessions per semester with a professional therapist on campus. I took advantage of that and they walked me through a lot of things that were buried and not talked about in our community. Learning about my history helped me understand who I am, which overall brought me so much clarity. Another important factor is community. attending a HBCU made me feel like I was a part of a community that strived to protect me and allowed me to be myself.

Germima Mounier, FAMU

Being at an HBCU did impact my mental and emotional health in a positive way. Having a sense of community and unity aided in my academic success. I’ve had academic training outside of an HBCU before and the environment and community was not welcoming, and that definitely impacted how I learned.

Davine Anelle, Howard University

Attending an institution that affirms your blackness does wonders for your mental health. Without realizing, the weight of being “the Black” one subsides. Not that I had an issue with being Black – I was tired of being the only one; the entire race representative. For some who prize being “the Black”, the HBCU experience may initially be jarring. Like, what makes you unique in comparison to the majority population? At least there’s a class or two that will allow you to process in a relatively safe space. The one drawback was having to go back into the “real” world.

Jana Wallace, Spelman College

Being at an HBCU was very good for my mental health because it took racial pressure off of me. I did not have to worry about whether being African-American affected my success or lack thereof because the majority of students at my school were African-American. Although there were other stressors in college, race was a big one I did not have to consider. In fact, my race was celebrated in a way that was uplifting and motivating.

Faith Reid, Spelman College

Knowing/seeing what I do now, I’d definitely say attending HBCU would help me feel safer.

Courtney Thompson, North Carolina Central University

On that note, I asked them all if they felt their mental health was or would be better off as a student at an HBCU or Predominantly Black Institution than as a Black student at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). The results were interesting:

  • 8/12 agreed that they were or would be better off at HBCUs than PWIs in terms of mental wellbeing,
  • 3/12 said “maybe”,
  • One person said “depends on the topic”.

The lesson here for PWIs is to listen to Black students and minorities, and learn how to cultivate more inclusive environments that foster a tangible sense of belonging. Without it, the sense of pride Black graduates will take in their alma maters is limited.

Many of the sentiments in their words hit home for me, even as a Black British woman who graduated from perhaps one of the most diverse of Russell Group universities. Still, Lord knows how many times I bemoaned the persistent feeling of being “out of place” and unwelcome after the initial hype of being a Fresher died down! Not to mention, the onslaught of microaggression after microaggression in some settings. As I write, the memory of tearful nights is palpable. Thankfully, I got by, taking refuge among others experiencing the same, but we shouldn’t have to feel that way to begin with.

As for my HBCU/PBI friends, the conversation got even juicier as we got onto the topic of Black Excellence, but this post is long enough as it is. So, stay tuned for that discussion, and to read the advice they have for new or hopeful students in Part Two!


Follow Bounce Black on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter to hear when Part Two of this series is up!

“#HBCUs are the biggest lesson in diversity imaginable.” – Check out @iBounceBlack’s blog on HBCUs, #BlackExcellence and #mentalhealth for #HBCUWeek: