Janelle Harris says attending an HBCU changed her life for the better. Here are seven amazing lessons that she learned on campus.
The last thing I said to my mama before she pulled away from me, the curb and the 22 box loads of belongings she’d helped me haul up to my dorm room: “If I don’t like it here by the end of the week, I’m coming back home.”
The first thing I said to my mama when she called to check in on me after she’d dropped off her only child and ostensibly her most precious investment three days before: “Never mind, you don’t have to come get me. Oh, and can you send me some money?”
The greatest parts of who I am were shaped at home with my family, in church with my Nana and in little bubbles of solitude with my books. Those qualities flourished on the campus of Lincoln University, which has the distinction of being the first historically Black college or university. We may not have an all-star alumni roster like Howard or the deep-pocketed endowments of Spelman, but like Miss Celie, we here. Dear God, we here.
I grew into a woman at Lincoln. I made lifelong friends at Lincoln. I learned as much about love, humanity, mentorship, camaraderie, Black people—and all people—as I did as a declared English major studying Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hurston and Hughes. I salute people who came into their own during their four (sometimes five, sometimes—keep it real—six or so) years on the campus of an HBCU. There are more than 100 schools, but there is a shared experience threaded between all of them. We’re extended family. We understand and appreciate (even if we sometimes compete with) each other.
I didn’t notice until I graduated and reluctantly entered the working world that, by attending an HBCU, I’d not only gotten an education, I’d been fire baptized for real life in the process. When a co-worker had a meltdown at her desk and started weeping uncontrollably over a lost data file, I thought to myself, chile please. I went to an HBCU, baby. I’m made of sterner stuff that that.
1. I learned to save my freakin’ work. It’s true: most HBCUs can’t afford the snazziest emerging technology. I once lost a paper two hours before it was due to my grizzliest professor. I didn’t have to get that lesson ever again. I’ve compulsively pressed control + S every 3-5 minutes ever since.
2. I learned not to be soft. You haven’t lived until you’ve stood in the shower and the chilly water temps challenged you to prove just how badly you wanted to be clean. Hot water was regularly MIA in my dorm; except in the library and the cafeteria, air conditioning was a never-was. And yet here I am.
3. I learned how to deal with difficult personalities. Anyone who has ever had to stand in a three-mile long registration line, politely take a bursar to task for a missing refund check or go toe-to-toe with an ornery financial aid counselor did, too.
4. I learned how to make it happen. My professors pushed me to succeed. Small class sizes and personalized attention left me very little wiggle room to let my slacking go unnoticed. And when I returned to school after having my daughter, they challenged me to stop using her as an excuse not to excel. I’m positive faculty anywhere else would not have taken such an interest in me walking across that stage.
5. I learned the importance of being organized. I maintain immaculate records of conversations with customer service representatives and my bills are in pristine order as an adult. You can’t be scattered when dealing with the administration at an HBCU. Not if you want to ultimately graduate.
6. I learned how to survive on a little bit. College in general will teach you to be resourceful—double that for a Black school.
7. I learned just as much about diversity as any other student. I made friends from the Caribbean, South America, Canada and just about every part of the US. I had professors from Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It was 31 flavors of blackness all on one campus, and I loved it.
I missed homecoming at my beloved Lincoln this year. I had too much work to do to justify hanging out and reliving the days when I was 18 and carefree, which is the best part of going back to campus. Best believe I was throwing up the LUs down here in DC, even in the midst of the Howard’s festivities. Lincoln was perfect for me and I was perfect for Lincoln. It was an insulated space to learn, not just in my classes, but in preparation for the life experiences that run up on me daily.
It’s an HBCU thing.
Janelle Harris is a writer, blogger and editor, and the owner of The Write or Die Chick , a boutique editorial services agency. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.