By Dr. Antione D. Tomlin, Mr. Geoffrey L. Colbert, and Mr. Joshua Spivey
Often, we hear that attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) can be frustrating for students, for many different reasons. Some of these reasons could include, but are certainly not limited to difficulty forging relationships with faculty and staff, difficulty managing interactions with departments on campus, and feeling a lack of support to aid in student success. This piece explores some of the challenges that two current HBCU doctoral students, Geoffrey and Josh, have encountered and how they navigated those experiences. They will also provide tips for students who may face similar challenges. Additionally, as an HBCU graduate and faculty member, I will share recommendations for how faculty can support students when experiencing challenges. We also want to note that while we are all connected to Morgan State University, the lessons learned and shared are a combination of many experiences across many institutions.
As an enthusiastic champion of educational equity and inclusivity, I work hard to make sure our Black and brown students are not only heard but valued within higher education. At Howard Community College, I serve as the Senior Director of Athletics, Student Conduct, and the Executive Associate to the Vice President of Student Services. In my role, I am responsible for the direction, management, and planning of athletics, student conduct, and compliance.
I attended Radford University for my undergraduate degree, where I pursued Marketing and Management. After I graduated from Radford, I attended Walden University for my master’s degree in higher education administration. After my two experiences at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs), I realized I wanted to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Presently, I am a doctoral student in the Community College Leadership Program at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Though my journey at Morgan State University has been a rewarding one, I have also experienced quite a bit of difficulty navigating the landscape. From getting my financial aid processed to working with the records and registration department to have my grades changed, every step has presented a complication. Although I was forewarned about challenges that could exist, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated my setbacks as my financial aid was impacted by these challenges. Furthermore, because of the delay in my financial aid being processed, I was not permitted to register for courses, putting me behind by weeks.
The great Langston Hughes once quoted, “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” This quote is best apt to describe my experience before attending a Historically Black College and University. By the time I enrolled at Bowie State University, I had lived a very interesting life. I believe that experiences such as barely graduating High School, serving in the United States Air Force, my time of incarceration, and my mother’s passing, all by the time of starting any college course, prepared me for life at an HBCU.
Once I arrived at Bowie State University, I was determined to succeed, regardless of what hardship arose. After I graduated from Bowie State, I enrolled in the Media Management Master’s Program at The New School. After I graduated from The New School, I worked in Maryland, Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, DC, primarily in education. Currently, I am a Professor at Frederick Community College and a Doctoral Student in the Urban Educational Leadership program at Morgan State University. My dissertation interest is toward traumatized black high school students and how they navigate those challenges to apply and be accepted into higher education institutions.
Some of the challenges that I faced as a student who currently attends and attended an HBCU include being a non-traditional student and financial issues. Being a non-traditional student at an HBCU was a challenge because I made it one. As I reflect on my time at Bowie State, I knew I was older than some students and would try to beat people to the punchline about my age. It was a conversation that I created that did not need to be a focus. The financial issues came from realizing that I could not afford higher education without taking out loans and working two jobs while being a full-time student. I did not have a parental figure nor any other family member that could assist me with educational funding.
Tips for Students:
1. Make Yourself Known
Considering some of the challenges listed above, creating connections helped resolve some of the issues. You must make yourself known! While you may feel like a number, the only way to change that is to control the narrative. Strive to develop healthy relationships with your faculty members. Those relationships can prove to be useful when you need support from folks who may feel inaccessible. We say, call, email, send a pigeon with a letter attached if you have to! Also, remember to use your resources, build those faculty relationships, and solicit them to help.
How Faculty Can Help:
As a faculty member, I take the time to get to know my students and let them know what resources are available to them. As noted in another post, Goings and Tomlin speak of supporting doctoral students during the pandemic and how important faculty are to increasing student success. While this is not a contractual obligation, I want to be sure that my students know that every connection I have, they also have. I am very open and transparent with my students. As faculty, we must share our resources and guide our undergraduate and graduate students through difficult situations, even outside of the classroom, to see them be successful.
2. Understand Your Journey is Only Yours
You cannot compare your situation or circumstances to others. You must understand that your journey and experience at your HBCU is yours, and you should not be afraid to ask for help when needed. Theodore Roosevelt once quoted, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and we want you to look to these words of wisdom when it feels that your journey is isolating and/or frustrating.
How Faculty Can Help:
Just as students have their journey, faculty do too. As faculty, we must not forget what our journey was like when pursuing education. We must be more available and open to encouraging our students to ask for help. We must continue to normalize the idea that students asking for help is a positive thing. As faculty, we should be calling students IN instead of calling them OUT when it may seem that they could use some help. Let’s start with asking students “What questions do you have? What support might you need?”
3. Play Nice
Even when it feels like administrators, faculty, or staff could be doing something differently (usually we think about a process being completed faster), you still play nice. Being rude, overly frustrated, or angry is not going to make the process or person move more quickly; it may actually get in the way or slow something down. So, play nice! Smile, voice your concerns, and figure out what needs to be done to move forward. Then, learn from your past experiences. Evaluate what works to get you what you need, and keep doing that!
How Faculty Can Help:
As faculty, we may be a little more aware of what is happening behind the scenes within specific departments or processes. We know that in some cases, things could be done differently. This is where we can use our voice to create change. If we see or notice something, there is nothing wrong with inquiring or offering suggestions for how things could be otherwise. Stepping up when needed creates allies for students, and in this way, decreases frustration and anger on the students’ end.
Dr. Antione D. Tomlin earned his PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is an assistant professor of Academic Literacies and English at Anne Arundel Community College.
Mr. Geoffrey Colbert is a doctoral student in the Community College Leadership program at Morgan State University and is the Senior Director of Athletics and Student Conduct, and the Executive Associate to the Vice President of Student Services.
Mr. Joshua Spivey is a doctoral student in Urban Educational Leadership at Morgan State University and is a Professor in the Department of Communications, Humanities and the Arts at Frederick Community College.