Fear Of A Non-Black Planet: How I Survived Having HBCU Dreams But A Predominately White University Reality

October 8, 2012  |  


By Cecily Michelle

For the majority of my life, I’ve been surrounded by nothing but black and brown faces.

I come from a city where it’s hard to spot a white hue if it’s not draped in a police uniform or posted downtown at a hockey game. So naturally, I grew to love and accept environments where people resemble me. That’s why as a high school senior, there was no question about where I was going to college. If you asked, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that I would be stomping yards and strutting the halls in my finest threads at an HBCU.

But as graduation neared, my plans took an abrupt turn when I realized that my dream school didn’t supply my major, and most importantly, it didn’t offer much financial aid—for me, the ultimate deal-breaker. So instead, I decided to take a scholarship to my community college, which just happened to be predominately black as well. Although not an HBCU, I felt at ease when I saw skin, hair, clothes and faces that reminded me of the people in my neighborhood.

When graduation rolled around, I received another scholarship that promised me a free ride at any public four-year college or university in New Jersey— all Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). From there, any thoughts of attending an HBCU had washed down the drain.
It took awhile, but after making my decision, I was excited about going away to school.  Still, I couldn’t shake the knots that had lodged in my stomach—the discomfort that moving outside of my mostly-black world had created. And after the first few weeks of settling in on the chiefly white campus, where most of the kids walking through the halls did not give me that comforting feeling from the neighborhood block, I fell into a serious funk.

All of the things that I had feared about going to a non-black college were coming to fruition. I was outnumbered, I felt like most people hated me, and I couldn’t shake the firm holds of feeling alienated. But as time progressed, those overwhelmingly negative feelings began to fade away, and I started to adjust. I socialized with people, both black and white, who were able to ease my worries and provide some level of comfort. I formulated strong bonds with professors who seemed to genuinely care about my success despite the difference in the tones of our skin. Basically, I got over myself.

Although I wasn’t getting the full experience of an HBCU, I discovered that there were plenty of events, clubs and organizations to make up for it.  Black students from near-by campuses came to participate in step shows and showcase their frat’s signature stroll at parties. Student organizations aimed at black unity and empowerment hosted monthly events which provided entertainment that, at times, made me forget that I was surrounded by a race other than my own.

So on May 16, 2012, the day that I said goodbye to my years as a college student, I sat draped in elation. I thought about how rough it was for me in the beginning—how I walked the campus with my head hanging low and how I wanted so badly to transfer to a school where I would have been more at ease, where I basically wouldn’t have to put forth much effort, but just be a black woman around black people. Maybe that’s what made my success at this university so much more sweeter—I was proud that in just a few moments, my name would be called to receive the case to my degree.

That day is now gone, and I’ve since realized—from both my own experience and conversations with other students who felt the same as me—that some of us are so wrapped up in the comfort of our neighborhoods that we forget that the planet is not dipped in black. There are millions of new people, places and things to be explored. And for me, attending a PWI not only helped me to accept racial differences and diversity, but better prepared me for life beyond my neighborhood.  I went through some tough times, a few encounters with subtle racism and smart remarks from both peers and professors, but it prepared me for the real world. I learned how to deal with complicated racial environments, how to behave when a person of a different race throws blows intended to evoke anger, and to accept cultural differences in people who don’t look like me. It wasn’t easy, but I survived at a predominantly white college, and it made me stronger.

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  • lura

    My experience was different and opposite. I grew up in a white community with a black area, but I attended private school in another district ( majority white ). I found I focused better. I always was an honor roll student, but freshman year I attended an all black private school, and let’s just say, that was like a culture shock. I was prom queen, track star, cheerleader, most popular…. but my grades fell to like a C average. The next year I was right back with the white people, all girl s at that. Grades went right back up. It was the same with college. All black university I had the time of my life, the best life experienced but I did my best close to home. In an environment that focused more on learning with less distractions. What did help me early on getting use to different cultures is the fact my mom always had me in some computer camp, science camp at the universities. I joined ballet at an early age….I did a lot of things early on whereas it was nothing to fall right in with different people !

  • And to think I was the only one who felt uncomfortable around too many white people. Glad I’m not alone. I always enjoy predominate black or mixed neighborhoods/schools

  • mone

    this is my life, im at pwi in new jersey as well..thank you for this article.

  • UB class of 2013

    This is the story of my life right now. I’m currently at a PWI (SUNY) in New York.

  • Sevn

    Good for you, writer of this article! I can share similar experiences about the demographics of where I was raised, who I grew up around (neighborhoods), and my schooling. My high school was 97% black, just 3 white people in my graduating class. Elementary and middle school were a little bit more diverse, but not much. Anyway, I wanted to go to an HBCU too earlier in life because of what your comfort zone is but I definitely don’t regret my decision graduating from a PWC, nope. It’s harder, no doubt, but you learn alot more realities. I felt confined to a box of an area then going into culture shock when you see what’s “really” out there. Even the black students I thought I would meet there would be like me and alot of them weren’t because they come from 2-parent homes, affluent schools and neighborhoods. I guess it just all depends on your financial situation and your major when you’re picking the best college for you. Even though I graduated from the college I did I won’t influence my kids (when I have them) to pick a PWC vs. HBCU because there are alot of great HBCU’s out here that I’ve had family and friends attend and are successful today.

  • Ann

    I am sorry you could not go to an HBCU due to lack of financial assistance. This why all of the alumnis we need to step out game up and donate back to HBCUs whether it $1.00 or $5.00 every little bit of money help deserving student who want to go to a HBCU. I started giving back to NCCU (trying to get other alumnis to give as well). I know they are some HBCUs who are unorganized, unprofessional, squander the finances, don’t do what they suppose to do. Please also take heed you have the mainstream school they are just as bad and have scandals as well. But you don’t always hear about it. It is amazing to me when mainstream white universities make the news when a scandal comes out, we don’t have not one problem supporting them (going to game, attending school there, donating money to them). When it comes to getting people to donate to HBCUs, it always something negative, (“I am not going to give my money back to (name of your HBCU school), but you don’t have a problem giving to mainstream schools that kick you up your behind, do underhanded and high tech racial stuff, and treat you any kind of way. I don’t have anything against mainstream schools, go there if they have what you need, I am just saying don’t put down HBCUs as if the schools are nothing. They need as much as financial support as possible from the alumni. To the individual that wrote the article, I wish you could have gotten finances so you could attended an HBCU.