OneGoal staff member Grant Crusor attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 2004 to 2008 and remains active in Howard’s alumni community. Calling it the greatest college experience a person could ask for, Grant dissects what exactly made his time so memorable as a Black student and what traits need to be universally found across college campuses in order to best serve all students.
Almost any graduate of a Historically Black College or University (institutions commonly referred to as HBCUs) will express without hesitation that their school is undoubtedly the best. In my case, the assertion just happens to be true! Joking aside, it’s true to me and my time at Howard University.
When deciding where to go to college, I knew I needed a setting that recognized and championed Black culture in its various forms. My Howard professors held a different level of ownership for student achievement than I experienced elsewhere. I was never coddled but constantly pushed to do and be better academically. I learned equally as much from my fellow Bison [Howard’s mascot] as well. The Yard, the university greenspace most people had to cross to get to classes and meetings, is a classroom itself. There I learned daily about the vast spectrum of Blackness from U.S., West Indian, and African contexts. With each walk, my spirit was made full by witnessing and contributing to Blackness in its most unencumbered and celebrated state.
I worked hard, often stayed out way too late hanging out, and made sure to enjoy that sacred space as much as possible. I was able to soak in all of these ideas because my mind was at rest. It no longer bore the brunt of worrying for my safety, code-switching, and the countless additional exercises I hold as a Black man living in America. That spirit of Black excellence stemming from Howard’s earliest days still floats throughout campus, permeating current students and alumni to this day.
That’s precisely where HBCUs excel: they see the direct connection between education and personhood.
HBCUs arose from a need for survival just before and after the Civil War. It was illegal for a Black person to learn to read, let alone attend school. Knowing that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” the fight for recognition as whole humans and, ultimately, citizens in a still foreign land, education was the means by which freedom was pursued. (For a fuller history on HBCUs I strongly recommend reading The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James D. Anderson).
As far as we’ve come in the last 150 years, many students of color are still not guaranteed the same opportunities and protections as their white counterparts. They recognize that access to higher education means greater chances of surviving and thriving, especially in a political climate that’s often less than affirming of their personhood. Many choose HBCUs and similar institutions because there they can learn and grow in spaces uniquely equipped to affirm and celebrate their specific identities. But HBCUs won’t always be the best choice – or the available choice – for everyone. With that in mind, we need to be asking all colleges to do better. Because of the success I found, I believe within HBCUs lie some of the answers for doing the crucial work to make schools life-giving for all students.
Paying attention to the changing racial and ethnic demographics of the United States and responding to the coming changes is more than a suggestion, it’s a necessity. Schools that cannot adequately express how they are doing this work should raise a red flag for a prospective applicant. Making space for a Black student union or Black graduate association on campus is great, but can still be an “othering” and isolating experience. Constantly engaging the entire student body and faculty in what it means to center the experience of varying kinds of students, putting meaningful funding behind that engagement, and actively pursuing the work of becoming anti-racist institutions are just a few ways all colleges and universities (HBCUs included) can better move forward in the 21st century.
We’re long past the time of having discussions about why an institution should adapt and change to serve growingly diverse populations. Who wants to keep paying the emotional and mental tax of dealing with another hate crime on campus in the most extreme example to the everyday guard of talking to a professor that doesn’t appreciate your history in the most typical of examples? I certainly didn’t, and I encounter young scholars every day that also do not want this for the college experience. My Howard pride stems from the university pushing me to take pride in myself. It is what keeps me volunteering my Saturdays to visit high schools and talk to prospective students. It’s what makes me raise my voice when others would attempt to silence my perspective. It’s what reminds me of my worth when the world refuses to recognize it.
Isn’t that what all colleges and universities want from their students?
November 26, 2018
Robert Emmons joined OneGoal as a Fellow in 2009 looking to improve his life and his community. Almost 10 years later, he’s completed the program, experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in college and given back by joining OneGoal staff. As he looks toward his next professional step, he now reflects on each step of his journey and how they defined him.