There was never a question in my mind whether or not I would attend college. The only question was where would I choose to go. It is a multi-layered decision as an African American male that may not even register for non-Blacks. In many African American families, young men attending college still represent a first for their respective families. Add to that being an athlete, and suddenly, you have a much more complicated picture. The dilemma starts with why do you want to go to college and it ends with how does this decision play into your future.
I chose not to attend a HBCU for a myriad of very specific calculated reasons. I chose Penn State because I was the first in my immediate family to attend college and I wanted to live in a world that looked very different than my own. I wanted to go to a school that immediately commanded respect and recognition. I grew up in a Black community, went to predominately Black public schools, and had very few interactions with any other race (outside of teachers and other athletes). Penn State represented everything that I wanted to become in my mind at the time. It represented success. I wanted to see how White America operated and how they attained wealth. Penn State was the bigger world outside of my own. I knew in my world that I had not come close to seeing how "America" lived and how success happened in a sustainable, consistent, and regular way. PSU was America and I wanted to be a part of the "dream." I thought that this was the first step to being successful, coming from where I come from.
Then there are the more common concerns of location, educational reputation, and degree options. Penn State is in the middle of the state surrounded by absolutely nothing. It is about as far from anything without being completely on an island as I had ever experienced. Especially, a place without many Black people. My father's family is from Starkville, MS and Mississippi State University has a similar isolated landscape. The biggest difference is that Starkville, MS has a very prominent Black population. Mind you, at 18 years old, I had never been on a plane. So, this location was something out of this world to me. It was far from my comfort zone. Penn State wasn't Ivy League, but it was a reputable school with a great reputation.
As an athlete, everyone wants to see how they stack up against the best. Division I college athletics are the top of the line for US universities. Being in the Atlantic 10 (in 1987), PSU wasn't in the strongest conference, but had very solid athletic programs. I wasn't recruited, but knew that I could compete at any level. So, why not go to one of the top D1 schools in the country? My athletic ability would be challenged, but that's what makes you an athlete.
I visited Penn State with my mother as a junior. It was a four hour drive and not having any frame of reference outside of the fact that she and I drove there and back on the same day, I figured that was the perfect distance from home. It was far enough away and in a different state, but still close enough that family could drive to get me when I needed to come home. The drive was very boring with lots of hills and trees, no major cities and very few stops along I-80 until we exited towards the campus. It was about another 30-45 minutes to campus once we exited and seemingly out of no where, there was a state prison about 10-15 minutes outside of the PSU campus. The state prison, Rockview, seemed gigantic - not knowing really what it was and how no one had mentioned that fact before the visit, I didn't think too much about it. Not too far from the prison was a mall as well. Ten minutes later, we arrived at the campus. The PSU campus was amazing. Perched across the street from a small quaint downtown of State College, the PSU campus stood out to me as clearly a place of higher learning. It was isolated from outside distractions found in city schools like Ohio State, but had its own outlet for young people in the small downtown. I liked the feel of having few distractions and being amongst peers almost exclusively. We met with counselors, took a campus tour, and saw some of the facilities. I was impressed and thought immediately, this was the place for me.
During our visit, it was mentioned that PSU had a very small African American population. At the time, it may have been around 3-5% of the student body. However, there were mentors and counselors assigned specifically to make sure that I would feel supported along the way to my degree. That small population of Black students would serve to make me recognize that I was no longer in familiar territory. It would make me comfortably uncomfortable in many ways. I had no idea what racism meant in the real world, but all of my "learning" about White people through the lens of Black America should be enough for me to navigate this new adventure. I was convinced that being in a White world, getting a higher education at a top US state university in a small town was the best option for me.
I chose Penn State because I thought that I could have a traditional college experience. While it was a great experience. It turned out that my roommate was the best thing that ever happened to me at Penn State. He was a White young man from Landsdale, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia). From the moment we met, I knew that it would be different than anything that I had ever experienced. We spent countless hours together over the four years there. He was an integral component to my growth into manhood. It was through our relationship that I learned what America could be if the veil of racism was truly lifted. While we never specifically talked about race, we affected each other's ideals of what race relations should be. There was and still is a reverence for one another that is only possible when you're really close with someone. This is essentially the reason that I went to Penn State.
I have to believe that attending a HBCU might have prepared me for something different as a Black man. What does that mean? PSU was not (maybe not all predominantly white universities aren't) in tune with the needs of the African American community. Especially, the post-graduation needs of African Americans. The HBCU experience likely could have put me in position to share my experience naturally. It might have allowed me outlets to be the bridge for other first-generation African American college students and made me more conscious of racism that would perpetuate throughout the rest of my life. Having shared experiences with other Black students was definitely part of my PSU experience. However, understanding how racism could play a major part in the Black graduate's future was not. Having outlets to express the ongoing struggle of being Black in the US would have been built-in through HBCUs. It is a little more difficult to commiserate with a young White male about your struggles as a Black man when they have a life completely devoid of the complications I faced. Truth be told, the ability to focus on learning without the daily reminder of my blackness and understanding that my professors really have my best interests at heart would probably be normal at any HBCU.
However, I am a proud graduate of Penn State University. I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from college. I was a four-year member of the track team. I was able to accomplish and see the world from a different perspective than I otherwise would have. My college experience proved to me that I belonged wherever I am and that I could be comfortable no matter what the world around me looked like. There are lots of reasons that I could have chosen a different path, but it turns out that my path was perfect for me. My experience was filled with enriching relationships that were life changing and lifelong. WE ARE!
This is Part 2 of a 2-part op-ed on choosing a college as a young Black man. These stories are a part of the Black experience and represent choices that were made for very different reasons by two individuals from similar backgrounds. We hope you enjoyed their stories.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I was invited by a friend from church to a Little Sibling’s Weekend at the predominately white university he was attending. I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of a weekend on a college campus, parent free. As the weekend approached, I selected what I believed to be my most collegiate appropriate attire- preppy sweaters, polos, argyle socks and tassel loafers. I wanted to look good, hoping to attract the eye of a pretty college girl or as a consolation, her little sib.
The weekend finally came. My family loaded into my parent’s conversion van dubbed the brown bomber due to its chocolate brown paint color. The university was about four hours from our home. My parents were excited for me to see the college as they hoped it would inspire me to improve my academic performance in order to be accepted to such a prestigious university as was the one, I was visiting. As we drove onto the campus, I was instantly impressed by the classic architecture of the buildings and the well-manicured, sprawling green spaces. My friend’s dormitory was nice. However, he had two roommates and they slept in a three-tier bunk bed. He showed me around the campus, introducing me to his many friends, both black and white. That evening, we attended a step show and party hosted by the Black Panhellenic Council. Watching the fraternities and sororities perform their step routines, I imagined the time I would be twirling my cane and flirting with all the pretty girls. The following morning at breakfast, we sat at a table with friends we had been hanging out with the night before. I could not help but to notice a very attractive young lady sitting across from me. I watched as numerous guys vied for her attention. I noticed the button she was wearing on her sweatshirt, a popular trend in the 80s. It read, “I’m in love with a Morehouse Man.” I made eye contact with her and asked, “Does your boyfriend attend Morehouse?” She instantly began blushing and said, “He most certainly does!” She then asked, “Is that where you are planning to attend?” I said I was undecided, but it was definitely on my list. She directed, “Make it #1.” Of all the great experiences that weekend, what stuck with me the most was her strong recommendation to make Morehouse my number one choice.
Over the next two years I researched all I could about Morehouse College and received all of their admission materials. I was so impressed by the marketing, “Be somebody, be a Morehouse Man!” This statement caused me to truly look introspectively at my life and the type of man I aspired to become. In addition, I liked their slogan, “Over a century of service building men.” The summer before my senior year I had opportunity to visit Morehouse. It did not have the cathedral looking buildings or the expansive green spaces that the predominately white institutions I visited had, but the student body, faculty and overall spirit of the place was irresistible to say the least. The sheer love the students had for the school and the pride they all had in calling themselves Morehouse Men was overwhelming; each student recognized that being a Morehouse Man was a privilege.
I would be granted this privilege a year later when I entered the Morehouse College freshman class. Freshman week was like something I had never experienced. Students from all over the country and beyond converged on the campus. It was more akin to an initiation than the normal freshmen student orientation. The culminating event of the week was our official induction to the Morehouse College Brotherhood. Alumni refer to fellow Morehouse Men as Morehouse Brothers. During freshmen week, we were required to wear a shirt and tie to all student meetings. Many of these meetings were divided by dormitory. Each student was required to stand and give his name, hometown, prospective major, why he chose Morehouse and his expectations of his time at Morehouse. Freshman week also consisted of socials with the freshman class of Spelman College, a women’s HBCU across the street from Morehouse; these students were required to wear skirts and dresses. These socials were intended to help Morehouse and Spelman students become better acquainted with each other. During one social, each Morehouse freshman is introduced to a Spelman freshman, thus starting a bond of Morehouse brother and Spelman sister; it is a tradition to ensure that both Morehouse and Spelman students have someone they can call a friend on both campuses. Many Alumni are still close to their Spelman sisters and Morehouse brothers long after they have graduated.
We were fully indoctrinated with the history and traditions of Morehouse College and what it means to be Morehouse Men as well as how we should conduct ourselves at all times:
We learned and were quizzed about every campus building, who they were named for, what departments they housed and year constructed. “No one should visit your House and you can’t tell them where things are.” We gathered nightly into Sale Hall where we learned the school Hymn and many school chants. It felt great to be a Morehouse Man! We were not permitted to wear any Morehouse paraphernalia until the end of freshman week which normally would end with a block party with the other schools in the Atlanta University Center or a trip to Six Flags Amusement Park. It was quite a site to see 500 black men enter the party chanting, “The House, The House, The House!” You truly felt part of something that was bigger than yourself.
As I would matriculate through the next few years, I found my time at Morehouse to be one of the most special periods in my life. The comradery I shared with my Morehouse Brothers as we began to navigate the world in an effort to understand and carve out our desired place. We were there to celebrate each other’s successes and console any disappointments. We held each other accountable to the men we wanted to become as well as the men we should be. The faculty was equally invested in this pursuit. They not only taught us their particular disciplines of study, but helped us to learn about ourselves and who we should aspire to become. We were given the challenge and understanding that it was our responsibility to lead our communities and change the world by rebelling against any and all limitations others sought to foist upon us. They would not let us miss a class and refused to accept anything less than our best. I can recall on several occasions when a professor asked who lived in the same dormitory as a student who was missing from class. They would then instruct someone to go get them and bring them to class. I remember a professor asking to see me after class. She was not pleased with how I had performed on an exam. She candidly told me that I could and must do better. “You have enough time in your day to achieve excellence. The world may accept your mediocrity, but I and you should demand your best.” I would take her words to heart and approached all academic and other pursuits demanding my best. Because the world does not see black people as scholars and believes we have little contribution to make outside of athletics and entertainment, this type of education can only be found at an HBCU. It is this education, that gives their students the self-respect and dignity that prepares and empowers them to succeed in the world at large.
I am asked many times, “what made your Morehouse experience so special?” My simple answer includes the following: Morehouse provided a community where race is not an issue. I was free from the stereotypes and limited expectations that shackle black people and negatively impact our self-esteem and therefore what we believe we can accomplish and become. I was free to develop and become all that I aspired to be. The Morehouse community provides support, inspiration and motivation not only to achieve your goals but to reach higher than what you originally imagined was possible. “Over the heads of her students Morehouse holds a crown, that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear.” --Howard Thurman
This 2-part op-ed is a closer look at the personal choices of two Black men from similar backgrounds and why they chose the higher learning institutions that they attended. Choosing your school for post high school education is a very important choice and is one of the more important choices that a young person will make to that point. We hope that you are able to gain some valuable insight on how this choice is made from an African American perspective.