An HBCU student tears up at his graduation, from Tell Them We Are Rising

HBCU Grads Share Their Stories of Campus Life

February 14, 2018 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Graduates of Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are proud alums, and in connection with the Independent Lens film Tell Them We Are Rising, which tells the 170 years—and rising—history of HBCUs, we found a few who were happy to tell their own stories of life on an HBCU campus.

These are just a sampling of the diverse voices who went to HBCUs, and we know many more of you will also happily share your own stories, so feel free to join in here or on our Facebook.

How did going to your HBCU and living on campus help prepare you for life outside of it?

“When I moved onto the campus at Howard I was only 17. It was a total shock living on my own but being on campus felt like a safe little community in the heart of a very big city. I got to explore life in D.C. while still being taken care of by the faculty and staff at Howard. Being a journalism student in D.C. was ideal. I had access to the best internships and career opportunities right at my ‘doorstep.’ I definitely credit Howard and D.C. with my current career success.”—Naima Pettigrew, Howard University

“The first week of class was the realization of ‘I’m on my own.’ I remember being late to my first couple of classes because, at home, Mom and Dad were my alarm clock in high school. Now in college, it was all up to me and I failed at it for a couple of weeks. I can also say that living with roommates on campus prepared me for roommates off campus. I quickly understood that because I do certain things doesn’t mean the other person does it the way I do it.”—Billy Fountain, Delaware State

DeAnna Munn and sisters at Spelman
DeAnna Munn and sisters at Spelman

“‘To know your future you must know your past.’ Attending an HBCU for WOMEN helped me fully develop into the woman I am today by not only helping me to better understand my history but to understand my place in this world as a black woman. No one can teach you about being a woman other than a woman. No one can understand being a minority other than a minority.  I received the best of both worlds!  The curriculum included required classes, such as the African Diaspora of the World, which focused on the global movement of people from Africa, a topic minimally discussed in my prior education. I saw professors that looked like me, I meet alumnae doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, chemists, businesswomen that looked like me and were able to share their experiences with navigating throughout the world, post-college, that was critical to the choices I have made today.

“The network of people and the resources that I have at my disposal are endless!  One of the most important aspects of attending Spelman is the examples of excellence that are constantly before me, inspiring me to continue to reach beyond expectations and achieve goals that were unimagined prior to college.”—DeAnna Munn, Spelman College

Billy Fountain in college and then today with family
Billy Fountain in college and then today with family

What’s your favorite memory of life at the HBCU you went to?

“My absolute favorite memory of campus life took place at the Village Cafeteria. It was a place of fellowship where you could hang out with your friends, and even find new ones. You could also meet your classmates when you may have missed a class, due to staying out late the night before, and to inquire about what assignments you may have missed. Then there was the ‘Superficial Generic Fashion Runway’ inside the cafeteria, the occasional disc jockey who would turn every event into a party at some point. The cafe was an assembly of people from different cities and different cultures. It was a place you could engage in face to face conversations with our black educated queens. At this point, Facebook was limited, until my later college years, so things had to be socially interactive [in real life].”—Reginald Harris, Delaware State

DeAnna Munn and Spelman friends at graduation practice
DeAnna Munn (2nd from left) and Spelman friends at graduation practice

“My entire experience at Spelman was life-changing. But if I had to focus on one thing it would be participating in graduation commemoration; not only as an actual graduate, but as a current student, and as an alum. Graduation is NOT just about the graduate, but a ceremony paying homage to those who came before us and uplifting those in school working hard to earn their degree. Spelman stands strong on traditions and on graduation day from the class of 2018 back to the class of 1960 (or before) every woman is wearing the traditional white dress, flesh tone stockings, and black shoes. We sing together, we laugh together, we cry together, we celebrate together! In May 2006, I walked through our sacred Alumnae arches being cheered on by hundreds of women and it is an honor to come back and pour that same pride into new graduates. You really never leave Spelman, there is always a reason to return!” —DeAnna Munn, Spelman College

“I can truly say that my favorite memory of Delaware State’s campus life was when I crossed the burning sands into Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. Not only did I gain the respect from hundreds of other brothers within my frat, the respect that meant the most was from the four other brothers who crossed with me. The love from my family that came from my hometown of Mount Vernon, NY, to the party we had afterward in a building campus police opened for us (and weren’t supposed to), was definitely a night I can never forget.”—Billy Fountain, Delaware State

“There are too many great memories to count but I would have to say Howard Homecoming was always the highlight of every year. Celebrity sightings on The Yard [see below], famous singers/rappers performing during Yardfest, and the tailgates for the football games were some of my favorite memories.”—Naima Pettigrew, Howard University

What surprised you the most about college life? Or what are some misconceptions people have about HBCUs that weren’t your reality?I guess I will never know what Harvard would get me, but I will say I love my HBCU and would not trade it for the world.

“What surprised me the most was noticing that there are so many people from different parts of the world. The misconception of attended an HBCU is that it’s a “Black” school and that wasn’t my reality. Now the majority of the school is African American however there was still a major majority of people that were from all races and ethnicities. It honestly opened my eyes to learning and understand other people’s backgrounds.”—Billy Fountain, Delaware State

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that [students] are not prepared for the real world upon graduating. I know for a fact I was well prepared and equipped to make my mark on the world post-graduation at Delaware State. I got every job I applied to after graduating and made a career as a financial professional in which I learned that 86% of America makes under $74k a year. I mention that because that includes students from Yale, Stanford, Princeton, etc. My university prepared me to be able to shine in an interview no matter the size of the school I went to. I guess I will never know what Harvard would get me, but I will say I love my HBCU and would not trade it for the world.”—Reginald Harris

“There is a negative perception that HBCUs are not comparable to other Colleges and Universities in the area of resources and exposure. My experience at Spelman was the total opposite; most of the top businesses come to Spelman to recruit (Delta Air Lines, Google, JP Morgan…to name a few).  I have yet to talk to a recruiter that did not know about Spelman and the caliber of women that attend the college. Just like there are some less renowned non-HBCU schools, with minimal resources and rank, you will also find that amongst HBCUs.”

“Now, I will say that financial resources continue to be an uphill battle for HBCUs, as is the plight of black people in general. I believe this is one of the main reasons that black students should attend HBCUs, so that we can, in turn, invest in these invaluable institutions as alumnae.”—DeAnna Munn

Howard U. grad Naima Pettigrew, at left
Howard U. grad Naima Pettigrew, at left

What was different about the experience as a woman at an HBCU vs what you know of male experiences?

“At Howard and most HBCU’s there is a wide ratio between males and females. I think it was about 10:1, if not worse, while I was there. I think a lot of the academic experiences were the same between males and females but I can definitely say there were not enough men in all of my classes.”—Naima Pettigrew, Howard University

What was one of the most powerful moments for you as a student?

“[It] just so happened to be when Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the United States of America. People celebrated inside and outside their rooms as if we won a National Championship. Obama gave us a sense of hope and inspiration that we could be anything we wanted to be if we set our minds to it.”—Reginald Harris, Delaware State

Any particularly crazy moments—that you can share?

“The craziest moment at Delaware State was the football game versus Norfolk State in 2007 for the M.E.A.C Championship. We were down 21-3 in the fourth quarter, and as we started to climb back in the game I made my way over to the Norfolk fan section screaming ‘I BELIEVE.’ It was one of my best heckle games. There was a sense of togetherness, nobody left the game even when it seemed out of reach. We won in overtime 28- 21. The entire student body jumped over the gates and rushed the field. I took my younger brother to the game—at that time he was still in high school, and that moment was the reason he also ended up attending and graduating from Delaware State.”—Reginald Harris

Hear more from Spelman grad Deanna Jenkins on WHYY: “Carrying forward my family’s HBCU legacy with four years of Black Girl Magic

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.