Cheyney University Blog

HBCUs – A Village of Choice for Some

November 15, 2012

Over the last decade, there have been numerous articles on HBCUs and discussions about their value and continued relevance in the 21st century.    Some of these articles state that in order to survive, HBCUs must be more competitive, more diverse, and more responsive to the needs of the nation.  It should be noted that during the same time period, there has not been equal scrutiny of religious colleges and universities, women's colleges, and colleges that profess missions for other specialized groups. Moreover, there are many bright students and middle-class students who choose HBCUs because they seek faculty and staff with different perspectives. However, that is the subject for another blog.

While the focus on HBCUs is broad, generally from lenses of others,  and within the current racial understandings in America, these discussions often overlook some of the more substantial contributions of HBCUs.  Besides the bright students and middle class families who choose them, these institutions also serve as safe havens for students who have been underserved, if not pushed to the outskirts of learning, by  K-12 educational systems with limited paradigms. In this regard, the curricular and extra-curricular activities of HBCUs help some students overcome low academic expectations and serve as the needed "village" to help guide and direct them towards contributing and responsible citizenship. 

When I meet the incoming class of students each year at Cheyney University, I note the range of students who attend HBCUs. I embrace these students and assure them that education is about transformation and change. The faculty and staff will help them with this transformation. For some students of color, first generation college students, and other marginalized students, this transformation can be a hugely emotional, psychological, and social transformation that helps to guide them  farther along their life's journeys. For many incoming students, they have yet to experience high expectations from their families or academic institutions. Once accepted, these students are challenged and expected to perform at higher standards.

Often when I meet incoming students at Cheyney University, I see hope in their eyes, but caution in their interactions. It generally takes more than four years to help most students realize that they are talented and bright, and can be responsible and contributing citizens (not to mention taxpayers) in the Commonwealth. At the end of the students' academic journey, faculty and staff often celebrate the obvious transformations of these students to intelligent and assertive citizens.

What is interesting about this transformation is that faculty and staff at HBCUS like Cheyney University are rarely applauded for the extraordinary work they perform which includes serving as surrogate parents, exposing students to a range of academic and career options, and helping students develop the academic and social skills that will help them succeed in the global village.

Some in the  larger society look at HBCUs and question why they should still exist, even though the same questions are not asked as rigorously about religious and special interest colleges and universities. However, few observers of HBCUs  delineate the extraordinary value these institutions add to the Commonwealth and nation by elevating, and supporting the lives of families, both advantaged and disadvantaged, who want what most Americans profess to desire—a  better life for their children and the next generation of leaders.

Even if K-12 educational institutions found ways to buoy the lives of all of their  students and families, and all students left secondary educational institutions on a level-playing field,  students and their families still should have choices—it is the American way.

Michelle Howard-Vital, Ph.D.
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania



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