Was The HBCU Experience Necessary For My Success? Maybe. Maybe Not.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

I have a friend who I consider to be uber-successful. I have very successful friends. Every one of my immediate closest friends from college has at least one advanced degree. A few have Ph.D.s. Some own their own businesses. Some of us are married. Some of us are parents. Point is, everybody, on paper and in real life, both personally and professionally, seems to be doing very well.


But I have one friend who is truly bodying the game in my opinion. His name is Dr. Manu O. Platt, Ph.D. He's got a Ph.D. in biology/biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech and Emory University and is an assistant professor at both schools. He runs his own lab and gets huge grants from the National Institutes of Health to fund it. He routinely travels to do work in South Africa, Kenya, Puerto Rico, and probably other places that I just don't know about. I'm not even 100 percent sure what it is that he's doing but I do know that it will a) change the world; and b) likely head this young man towards the road to a Nobel prize one day. Hell, he JUST ended up on the cover of a magazine celebrating his achievements, along with other super notable individuals in education. Point is, my boy is the man in these streets and I couldn't be prouder of him.

Another thing he does that makes me proud is give back to our alma mater and to the community at large through service. He does a lot of work mentoring Morehouse students and he also works with high school students in Atlanta from communities of color trying to get them into STEM programs. My man is changing the world and giving back. That long intro brings me to a conversation that we all had last night. My boy is in town because of a program he runs at Georgia Tech (peep the article, its good to see Black people doing big things in STEM) that brings high school students from marginalized communities in Atlanta into Georgia Tech to work on research. One of his students was invited by the White House to come to DC to be part of a tw0-person panel entitled “Front and Center: Bringing Marginalized Girls into STEM and Career and Technical Education.” That, my friends, is a big deal.


Well, last night, he corralled all of us who are here in DC to come together to show this high school senior that people can be both uber-successful AND still down to earth, and to talk to her about attending an HBCU…well, Spelman. She has yet to make up her mind as to where she's going to go, but as a Morehouse Man and by default Spelman supporter, he figured it can't hurt to bring us all together to talk to her and give her some guidance and pointers. (Just an FYI, Spelman and Morehouse have a dual degree program with Georgia Tech for engineering majors.)

This young lady is of course very bright, hence being invited to come to DC to speak to people as a high school senior, so the list of places she's been accepted to and received full scholarships from was very impressive. I can't rattle the names off of the top of my head, but I immediately congratulated her mother on doing such a great job raising a child who is going places. So the conversation came up about why somebody should go to an HBCU versus a PWI. And to be honest, despite my uber rah rah attitude about attending an HBCU, nothing that I could say OR that was said sounded like THE reason that an HBCU is a better choice over any particular PWI. In our community we have these arguments all of the time. HBCU folks feel like our education was better than that of a PWI for various reasons; PWI alumns feel like their education was better for a similar set of reasons. The only thing I've really learned about this debate is that PWI folks are super defensive about their not having attended an HBCU (it's true, suck it up), and HBCU folks (well a segment of us that attended certain HBCUs) are mad protective AND patronizing towards PWI about their reasons for not attending one (its true, suck it up). Look, we love our HBCUs and very little can be said to convince any of us who enjoyed our time there that our experience didn't whip the PWI school experience's ass.

As my friends all talked about why Morehouse and Spelman were so great and shared many stories from our good ole college days…over 14 years ago (!!!!!!!!), I was waiting for what made the experience the one that was necessary. I have lots of friends who went to school at PWIs who have substantial Black networks. Many are Greek. Some just know all the Black people. They found support systems. They made memories. They graduated. They moved on to bigger and better things. Now, it is also entirely possible that there's selection bias. There does seem to be an inordinate number of associates of mine who are legitamately doing shit with their lives. I also live in DC where you can't throw a rock without hitting a Black person doing something. So being in DC might not be an adequate representation of what things are really like elsewhere. Maybe folks are out here struggling because they didn't get the support they needed in college. Yo no se. But I'd wager that the differences between many of our educations is marginal and come down to specific experiences.


What I do know is that the experience I had was priceless. The sense of being around that many Black people who were all focused on bettering themselves through education is beautiful. Nobody had to worry about what percentage of us were Black on campus so raicials issues weren't our bag, baby. It did teach me resilience and on-the-spot problem solving while I was at the registrar's office being told I never received a scholarship and pulled my scholarship offer and acceptance paper out of my wallet (true story) and they're like, "okay, cool". I learned things at Morehouse I just don't think I'd get elsewhere. And I say that partially because of my experiences in grad school with Black folks who went to PWIs. We just came from different worlds and perspectives. Can I say one was better? No. I can't. I do tend to think my experiences stood out as more invaluable as the PWI Black students talked about wishing they had as much school and Black pride as they saw all of us Morehouse dudes (three of us from Morehouse went to my PWI for grad school together in the same department). There is something about being a Morehouse Man or a Spelman Woman or a Howard grad or a Hamptonian that I'm not sure you get being from other schools. I could be overstating, but I've had enough conversations to make me think that if I am, its not too far off base.

Interestingly enough, I didn't go to Morehouse for any of that. I went because one of my best friends from high school - who til this day is still one of my best friends - got into Morehouse and got a scholarship and was like, "yo, P, you should go here and we can be roommates." I was like, "ok." Hey, if it was good enough for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Happy Birthday) I suppose it was good enough for me. I had received full scholarships from a laundry list of schools that we all know and respect but nothing drew me to any place in particular. So I applied, got a scholarship and the rest was history. I had the fortune of being invited to a summer program for STEM majors where I would eventually meet the men I call my best friends to this very day (they're ALL my daughter's godfathers), two of whom were at dinner last night with me talking to this young lady about her future. That summer program cemented my decision to attend Morehouse as the right one.


I know that I wouldn't have had the experiences I had with the friends I had them with at a PWI. The friendships I made were priceless. The type of people who attend an HBCU are exactly who my friends are. I love that. We got the full value out of that education and the vast majority of it wasn't in the classroom. The support, the sense of pride, the immediate requirement to know and understand that you are Black and that makes you somebody is something that I carry with me everywhere. Morehouse Men are notoriously arrogant and at times every bit of the jackass we're purported to be. However, there's nothing like knowing that you're the man, regardless. I remember taking a class called Professional Development where the professor (RIP) was talking about how you present yourself at an interview. He told us, "say you have a 2.0 and you have an interview and they ask you about it. Conventional wisdom is to try to explain it away through pitfalls and/or hardship. This is wrong. Look at me, Black men. You better march your ass into that interviews office like that's the best damn 2.0 he will ever see in his life. By the time you're done, he should wish he had one. Know your worth. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be valuable. And you are all valuable, some of you just don't realize it yet." This is a lesson I have carried with me everywhere in life. Sure it could come from anywhere, but it held extra weight coming from a Black man that I respected who gave of his time and life to help me succeed. I was confident before I got to Morehouse. I learned that my confidence was okay and expected when I got there. Priceless.

Would I have been just as successful at a PWI? I think so. Would my friends? Absolutely. But would we be the people we are today? I'm not sure. But, I'm glad we are who we are and I'm glad part of that was shaped by where we attended. Attending an HBCU, and particularly Morehouse, was one of the best decisions of my life.


So what shaped your experience? What made it special? Any regrets? Did the school you went to shape who you are today?

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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Wild Cougar

I'm from the west, so an HBCU was never a serious consideration for me. An HBCU would have been a greater cultural shock than the PWI I attended. A lot of the athletes who got scholarships suffered culture shock and dropped out. I always thought that was weak, but what did I know? I'm still in culture shock being around HBCU grads and I've been in DC ten years. I'm pretty sure I would not have had a good time, coming from where I'm from. As they say, all skinfolk aint kinfolk.

Anyways, with regard to your last paragraph……I'm gonna tread lightly. It is possible that in most of the conversations you've had with PWI graduates, they've expressed, defensiveness and wishing they went to an HBCU. I can really see that happening. It's sort of like when you go to a Puerto Rican's house and you tell them their arroz con gandules is the greatest thing you ever had and you wish you were Latino. You say it because if you don't there will be bad feelings. HBCU grads, like Puerto Ricans, are so outrageously over the top proud and arrogant that they cannot conceive of anyone not thinking they are great. There is the unspoken threat that if that is disputed, its gonna get ugly.

Only problem, arroz con gandules is rice with a little flavor with some little beans you almost can't tell are there. I'd say that is a good analogy to the…….how should I say…..flavor….. of the "product" I've seen coming from the HBCU grads I know. Just the ones I know. OK? *ducks

Having attended a pretty good state PWI, I had to sprint academically to keep up. I went to mediocre public schools, so I wasn't ready. I had the brain power, but not the background. I did not have mentors telling me I was great because I was black. I had professors and friends telling me I better keep up or I would get left behind. Excellence wasn't a goal, it was a prerequisite. The bar was mufuggin high and I had to scrap, crawl, claw my way to get over it.

I come to DC and meet HBCU grads that, based on the work they produce, would not have made it to graduation day at my school and it was just a pretty good state school. I know this like I know my own name. Yet they are SO over the top proud and arrogant. And to be honest, in DC, the networking allows a lot of mediocre HBCU grads to get ahead. So, if you are a black professional in DC who didn't go to an HBCU and you watch black folks with degrees speaking and producing work that is just a tad embarrassing, you keep your mouth shut. Because it is DC.

I'm not trying to brag, but when I show HBCU grads some of the stuff I've produced professionally and in my business they are surprised by the quality, which is sad. I ask them what did they expect and they say something like, well, usually Black folks……..you can finish that sentence for me. But again, I keep my mouth shut about such things because all you're gonna get in DC talking that talk is a lot of offended people and you might lose your job.