Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Pitfalls of Higher Learning: PWIs vs. HBCUs


Tired of being ignored and fed up with blatant abuse, 30 African-American football players from the University of Missouri decided to boycott their upcoming game. The unspeakable on-campus incidents had been swept under the rug, until a $1 million dollar NCAA fine became a lingering issue. As the head of the University, President Tim Wolfe received the bulk of the heat, eventually conceding to pressure from students and athletes to resign from his leadership role. Then came protests, threats, media bullying and more turmoil for students who simply want to feel protected where they learn. The tension has reached a new level of extreme. Surprisingly, a PWI vs. HBCU debate is now overshadowing what was presented earlier this week as breaking news.

Belittling the currently enrolled black students at the University of Missouri with a rebuttal, such as: "You should've attended an HBCU", does not aid in their attempt to overcome still-prevalent racism. Nor does it offer them any reassurance. Actually, it diminishes the impact of their recent triumph and insinuates that their non-violent protests have no real clout. And their newfound power? Well, according to some HBCU grads, there's no room to rule at a Predominately White Institution, because they weren't built for US...

My name is Liltera R. Williams and I am a proud product of Florida State University: a PWI. Fall class of 2008. In the past, through poetry, I've openly written about my undergraduate years. Oftentimes, the lone African-American English major occupying desk space in modernized classrooms, though not isolated by force.

I was happy to be 
the only colored girl 
in most classes 
unique but sweet 
Blackberry molasses 
with no sense of fashion
writing was my passion

(From Amateur Thoughts Discovered)

My intelligence could not be measured through the distance of a ratio. I believed that I was smart enough to thrive in a setting that made me feel uncomfortable as a minority. It was no different than the conditions of my high school honors classes. Except, during that time, I was teased for standing out instead of fitting in, which contributed to an irregular sense of belonging. 
  
My brother is a product of Bethune-Cookman University: an HBCU. Spring class of 2014. He now works for his Alma mater as an admissions counselor, eagerly recruiting high school seniors who remain oblivious to the aftermath of their college choice. While containing their excitement and preparing for the challenges that lie ahead, their concerns are quite trivial. They won't be asked to defend their decision of where to pursue more knowledge, until they're second-guessing themselves in the midst of a racial divide taking place on a campus where they no longer feel safe or welcomed. But, according to testimonials shared across my social network feeds, this type of outcasting doesn't happen at HBCUs. 

Furthermore, my brother and I have had numerous conversations about how much our educational experiences differed. We both, respectfully, address the contrasts in the way we were taught, as well as how we developed from first-year freshmen to post-grad alumni. I was navigating through a wide spectrum of diversity while he was immediately drawn to peers with striking resemblances. My tight-knit circle consisted of friendships I'd already established in grade school. Four of my closest friends  were educated at nearby Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University: also an HBCU. My brother became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and was also active within various other organizations. I decided to focus on my studies, while working a part-time job in health care. However, as I currently reflect on my time spent at FSU and in the city of Tallahassee, I am flooded with positive memories. From Union Wednesdays to Seminole Saturdays (gameday). Splurging with my net check during weekend field trips to Governor's Square Mall. Unsuccessfully searching for rhythm in the middle of the dance floor at The Moon and Baja's. Writing in my notebook at the bus station, car-less and dreaming...

I also recall the exact moment Barack Obama became POTUS. I toasted to the victory with my besties. We jumped up and down in the middle of the living room, dismissing the shock, and figured we'd never have to worry about the past repeating itself. Change had come, we thought. Seven years later, it hurts to discover that we were wrong.

At a PWI, I studied. I networked. I partied. And I graduated. More than anyone, I fully understand the commitment to exercising school pride, but the next time you're inspired to boast about the perks of enrolling at an HBCU, remember this: we may share similar physical features and historical connections, but our mental and emotional struggles are not the same. The most notable thing we have in common is a belief that education is not a privilege; it is a right, no matter where the lessons are delivered. So, as an alternative to bickering and bashing the University of Missouri students for taking a public stand against mistreatment, we should all be thanking them for keeping the torch lit. We can't march on, together, in darkness anyway. Let's end the argument of who's superior and apply our degrees towards something more productive. Shall we?

-LRW

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