I remember watching TV shows around Black culture growing up and seeing the representation of historically Black colleges and universities in the form of apparel - at the time, I didn’t know these sweatshirts were showcasing HBCUs. In my senior year of high school, I applied to one HBCU, Virginia Union University. Though I was accepted, I did not attend - I ended up at a community college for financial reasons. HBCUs were not a hot topic for me growing up or when it came to deciding on a college to attend.
I attended predominantly white institutions for all four (4) of my degrees: associates, bachelors, masters, and doctorate. My decision to attend these types of institutions was based more on location and where I was in life at the time. I entered the field of higher education after obtaining my master's degree and this is when my shift to HBCU advocacy was to begin.
My first job in higher education was at a small, private predominately white institution. I served the institution for a year before accepting a position at the largest HBCU in the nation, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T). To date, I have been employed at NC A&T SU since 2012 and served in three different roles, with my most current position in student affairs assessment and staff development.
NC A&T SU is where my advocacy for ALL HBCUs began and grew...this is my ode to HBCUs…
To the First HBCUs
Black students were never a thought when the higher education system was formed.
That did not stop Black students from seeking their rightful place in education and history.
We did what we do best, we rise up and establish avenues for our own people.
1837, the first Black institute was founded, now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
The only public institution in Washington, DC was founded in 1851, University of the District of Columbia, yes a HBCU.
Later in Pennsylvania, in 1854 the first degree-granting HBCU was founded, Lincoln University.
If that wasn’t remarkable, the first private HBCU and first to be owned and operated by African Americans, Wilberforce University, was founded in 1856 in Ohio.
These institutions began the legacy of HBCUs that came thereafter. Though similar in mission, to educate the Black student, each institution has its own culture. That's the beauty of the black community, we are not monoliths, and neither are our HBCUs.
In the past year, I have had a chance to visit a few HBCUs (my goal is to walk the campus of every HBCU). I immediately noticed how different each HBCU was, yet they all had a deep history and mission to serve and educate Black students (though these institutions are becoming more diverse to welcome other races/ethnicities). Here are a few snapshots from some visits!
Johnson C Smith University - Charlotte, NC
Texas Southern University - Houston, TX
Saint Augustine University - Raleigh, NC
(St. Agnes Hospital)
Shaw University - Raleigh, NC
Miles College - Fairfield, AL
Elizabeth City State University - Elizabeth City, NC
Tennessee State University - Nashville, TN
Intersection of Assessment and HBCUs
So...how did I get to the intersection of assessment and HBCUs? In the spring/summer of 2016, as a professional in housing and residence life, I served on our assessment committee (the only assessment I knew was psychological because of my counseling background). I remember sitting in a meeting with the committee and the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. I made a comment of creating a position that focused totally on student affairs assessment - because in my opinion we (at least me) were not equipped with the necessary tools to conduct assessment effectively.
Let me say that during this time, I was working on my dissertation (at the time researching the experiences of Transgender students) and looking to exit NC A&T. It was during my summer 2016 residency where my professor at the time asked why I was pursuing this degree and how my study would influence my career aspirations…
My response to her, “I want to help people and organizations reach their potential and grow.” She told me, “Well, this is not the study for you - come back tomorrow with your study.” I remember sitting in my hotel room trying to figure out how I am going to create a totally new prospectus in less than 12 hours - WHAT WAS I GOING TO STUDY? I called a close friend/colleague and we began talking about our last meeting (the housing and residence life assessment committee) and suggested maybe I look into that - the rest was history!
Moving forward, it is important to know, I was looking to leave NC A&T and seek positions in Diversity and Inclusion, my first love as it relates to working in higher education….I went on an interview and everything. Well, I came back from my interview and was told that the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs was sending me to an Assessment Institute in Baltimore, Maryland - sponsored by ACPA. I went and, over the course of days, I fell in love with assessment and began to explore how HBCUs showed up in this space - I didn’t see them!
HBCU Assessment Queen
Well, after 5 years serving in Housing and Residence Life, I took an unexpected turn and applied for a new position at NC A&T - Assessment Coordinator for Student Affairs. In July 2016, I became the first to occupy this space at NC A&T and, to my knowledge, the first on any HBCU campus who had a background in student affairs in such a position.
In 2018, I completed my dissertation - of course, one of its kind. My dissertation explored the culture of assessment in student affairs at a historically Black university. In conducting my literature review, I found early that no one had explored this phenomenon at a historically Black college or university. Honestly, I was not surprised, as HBCUs are not utilized in research often - which is the primary reason for me writing this piece. HBCUs are a staple in higher education history and can no longer be overlooked when adding to the body of literature.
I have been working with HBCUs since then as it relates to assessment, accreditation, and institutional effectiveness, more specifically within student affairs. I am a UNICORN! And I absolutely love what I do and advocate for HBCUs openly!
HBCUs and Equity-Minded Practices
So you can’t discuss equity-minded work without giving the due respect to HBCUs.
These institutions, since their founding have faced different levels of inequities. Yet they still thrive and push through to ensure the needs of their students are met. So here are some reasons why HBCUs should be leading or at the very least, be part of the discussion around equity-minded practices in higher education.
- HBCUs were founded because of inequities, inequalities and discrimination against Black people wanting to pursue an education.
- HBCUs educate and graduate the most Black students in higher education.
- HBCUs provide safe spaces to discuss and respond to racial and social injustice.
- HBCUs are home to a large number of first-generation students, therefore, we aim to provide a family atmosphere for students to succeed and develop.
- HBCUs provide an in-depth experience for Black students to understand their ancestral history in an experiential way because of school history.
- HBCUs develop and maintain strong alumni support which often leads to creating job opportunities, internships, and scholarships for current students.
We still have room to grow and work to do at HBCUs...we must not dismiss the intersecting identities of our students who are Black and non Black and how they show up on our campuses - as they have been taboo topics for some time. Intersecting Identities to include, yet not limited to: sexual orientation, religion, geographical locations of students, and race (bi-racial students).
Call To Action: Visit and Learn about HBCUs
If you are reading this, I encourage you to visit and learn about the HBCUs around you - if none are around, road trip with colleagues and it will be fun and educational. If you find yourself in North Carolina, please stop by for a visit at the current largest HBCU in the Land - North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University - to whom I owe this journey of assessment and HBCU!
“You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way….to get in the way”
- John Lewis
Dr. Kellie M. Dixon, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University