Better Together: HBCUs and the Power to Fix the Future

According to the National Institute of Health and Science, the U.S. will need to find nearly 1 million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals over the next five years. Rather than looking for them in other countries, I think it’s time for the tech sector to finally look at a source for STEM professionals that has been sitting under their collective noses for too long — Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Let’s talk about HBCUs for a minute. I went to one. Let me tell you a few things about the HBCU experience. First and foremost, for me, it was unique to be immersed in a truly Black educational experience. It felt like a cultural refuge. Don’t get me wrong: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Thee “BK,” as we call it, is one of this country’s profound original melting pots. My family was a melting pot, too.

I love diversity and, every day, my job is to champion it. But having a uniquely Black undergraduate experience was useful in a very particular way. It didn’t just teach me what I wanted to learn. It didn’t just give me skills for the future jobs I’d hold. It taught me how to be in the world — how to be me. How to still be Tandalea from BK and navigate predominantly white institutions all around me without losing sight of me and who I am.

So, what was it like coming from Brooklyn and going to an HBCU? I grew up in New York City and went to diverse schools all my life. You would think that, by going to an HBCU, I would have been more prepared for the diversity I encountered. Wrong. Although the school itself was “historically” and mostly Black, there was a richness of diversity in the school’s population that is difficult to explain in words. Teachers from all over the country and the world. A student body from across the diaspora. And they all displayed diversity of thought, understanding and experiences. It was immersive. It was therapeutic.

Close your eyes and imagine the scene.

A drumline from a world-class marching band practices on the field in the distance. There are Pan Hellenic Greek plots all over “The Yard” in front of you. The pride is palpable. The roots of Black Excellence are all around you. Then the styles. The creativity. In fashion. In hair. Bold colors. Bold attitudes. Bold beautiful beings all around you. The latest hip-hop blares out of a distant dorm room window. The familiar smells of soul food come from the cafeteria. You see and feel all of this — and your character swells with determination and pride. You feel the power of legacy. You feel alumni ties as strong as oak. You feel where you are. You feel it as where you want to be. As where you are supposed to be. You are at home.

I’m nostalgic thinking about it again.

I remember in my African American Politics class, my professor, Dr. Osei, helped me gain an additional layer of respect and pride in my ancestors. Dr. Osei was of Ghanaian descent and had the most captivating stories around how and why Black people have been politicized in this country since being brought here on slave ships. The particular lesson I’m referring to was a lesson on the Black church. If I painted the picture for you, it still might be missing some color. The creative and scholarly parts of me still feel that lesson today — over 20 years later. And this is a subject that I now teach college students; a lesson I pass down to each student I teach.

The connection between the Black church and HBCUs is a powerful one. Black resilience is heavily rooted in both faith and education. Both are key to survival — and the connection between church and school is deeply reciprocal.

These twin pillars of the community also played a huge role in the civil rights movement. It began in the Black church. It grew in the Black church. It was funded by the Black church. But it was carried out by the Black church and a lot of students. Black colleges and universities played a huge role. And today, they remind students of this connection. Black colleges were built with it in mind. Black colleges are a constant reminder of both the endurance associated with faith and the importance of education.

The history of HBCUs alone instills a sense of pride that one carries for a lifetime as an alumnus. The history of HBCUs is American history that was created during a time when Black people were not allowed — or it was prohibitively difficult to gain admission to — the same institutions of higher learning as whites. HBCUs were established to create independent, standalone, world-class educational institutions. It started in 1837, when Richard Humphries founded Cheney University in Pennsylvania as the first HBCU in the U.S. There are now 107 HBCUs in the U.S. and its territories.

Today, HBCUs are only 3%of the nation’s educational institutions. Yet, they account for:

  • 25% of African American college graduates
  • 50% of African American public-school teachers
  • 50% of all future African American lawyers
  • 80% of all African American judges
  • 38% of all African American healthcare professionals
  • 41% of all degrees in STEM fields

Going to an HBCU is like no other college experience. It left a lasting effect on how I conduct myself and how I walk through life. Moreover, HBCUs play a critical role in helping African Americans dismantle obstacles to freedom, equality, social mobility and collective advancement. They teach you lessons on how to successfully navigate a racially biased world. This priceless knowledge, in other words, is the hallmark of an HBCU education.

As we strive to make our workforces more diverse, let’s look increasingly to HBCU graduates and alumni. Let’s recruit on their campuses. Let’s consider partnerships. Let’s build bridges between the tech industry and this vast talent pool. They’ve been supplying the country with a pipeline of diverse candidates for more than a century — qualified candidates who can help bridge gaps, innovate, create and lead. Candidates who also bring a diversity of thought to the table that’s most definitely good for business.

As a proud graduate, I can think of no better way to celebrate Black History Month than by looking to the future. And the future that I see has a lot of HBCU grads working at places like Genesys. Helping build this future is what I’m about. So, when we look at the history of HBCUs, remember to do what they do: Look ahead to a more egalitarian future. That’s my theme for this February and beyond. And that vision started taking shape on my first day at an HBCU.