Opinion: At HBCUs, Black students are seen, heard and inspired

Michelle Obama talks to students from Spelman and Morehouse colleges about her book “Becoming” during a discussion at Spelman’s Giles Hall on Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Atlanta. More celebrities like her have visited the campus, spotlighting historically Black colleges and universities. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Michelle Obama talks to students from Spelman and Morehouse colleges about her book “Becoming” during a discussion at Spelman’s Giles Hall on Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Atlanta. More celebrities like her have visited the campus, spotlighting historically Black colleges and universities. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

To mark HBCU Week, Sept. 24-28, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is running a series of guest columns that examine the role of historically Black colleges and universities and the challenges that face them. The White House is hosting the 2023 National HBCU Week Conference in Arlington, Virginia, this week with the theme of “Raising the Bar: Forging Excellence through Innovation & Leadership.” The AJC guest columns will also speak to those themes.

Today, Spelman College Provost Pamela Scott-Johnson reflects on her decision to attend Spelman College and how it enriched her life. Here are links to two guest columns that have already appeared, Harry Williams of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and David A. Thomas, Morehouse College’s president. Return to this space this week for more perspectives on HBCUs.

By Pamela Scott-Johnson

I chose to attend Spelman College in 1978, to be challenged academically, nurtured by a supportive and affirming community, developed, and refined as a leader. Spelman was the mecca of Black colleges, because of its reputation, the beautiful campus, its Atlanta location, the heart of civil rights, progressiveness, and Black culture.

Why send a young woman like me to Spelman or any other historically Black college or university?

Simply put, in addition to being challenged academically, the intellectual rigor, social and psychological support and an understanding that my intellectual curiosity would not be questioned or mocked, misjudged, mischaracterized, misrepresented, and misunderstood. My family and other Black families sensed that I (and their own daughters) would not have to fight every day to be heard and seen as human beings, as people. In fact, they sensed that I would be encouraged to speak out as my authentic self.

My family and others send their children to HBCUs because of the faculty members who are often leaders in the fields and the exposure to scholars, entertainers, politicians, philanthropists and firsts who share their wisdom and trajectories during conversations, discussions and events.

After arriving at Spelman, I made the awesome discovery that so many of my fellow HBCU students made. HBCUs provided the fertile academic ground and welcoming environment that are key to our development as well-rounded professionals. Being surrounded by leaders who impacted society across all sectors was powerful and empowering.

Faculty, staff and administrators who dedicated their lives to preparing us for worlds unknown, and sometimes unrealized by them. Trailblazers such as Oran W. Eagleson, the eighth black person in the United States to receive a doctorate in psychology; Etta Falconer, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics; Nagambal Shah; Henry McBay; Mozel Spriggs and American Express CEO and Chairman James Robinson, who received an honorary degree and spoke during my graduation along with Shirley Chisholm, congresswoman from New York and first Black person and first woman from the Democratic Party to run for president of the United States. Where else could we have met the first African American woman Rhodes Scholar Karen Stevenson?

Where? Spelman College.

Pamela Scott-Johnson is the provost of Spelman College. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Many of these experiences, and more, are provided to hundreds of students at HBCUs — experiences of study abroad travel, engaging with notable researchers, scholars, entertainers, thought leaders, activists and trailblazers. I returned to Spelman in 1992 after earning a doctoral degree in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University and spending 10 years in corporate research after to develop courses in cognitive and physiological psychology, create a laboratory for introductory psychology and expose numerous students to different fields of psychology.

I returned to mentor, lead, introduce my students to leaders in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, partner and collaborate with colleagues across the campus, promote students and build a world-class educational experience for them with the support of my colleagues and friends.

HBCUs have been the primary source of Black talent in all sectors, including health and health care/medicine, research, government, nonprofits, for-profits and K-12 and higher education. Our institutions have been engines of Black mobility and American innovation and ingenuity and sources of talent that enhance our nation’s competitiveness. Our past and our future depend on the rich diversity that we all add to the fabric of our nation and the world.

The conversation about the importance of HBCUs and their existence as viable educational engines is not new. In the 1970s, when I began to explore college options, there were doubts about whether Black colleges would exist. Negative federal and state voices were questioning every aspect (e.g., accountability and assessment measures, competition, state mandates, declines in state and federal funding, changes in the classroom and pedagogical landscape and diminutive endowments). Accrediting agencies were offering negative reports about the quality of education (e.g., instruction, quality of facilities, financial well-being, personnel, service/goods).

I return now as provost and vice president for academic affairs with a single vision — to elevate the educational experiences that prepare students for futures that only exist in the future and in the imagination of the beholder. We must be experts at integrating our teaching mission with our faculty’s needs as scholars and experts in their own rights.

We will be extraordinary in preparing our learners for the future workforce while developing their own authentic voices and evolving our voices as committed scholars, educators, philanthropists, businesspeople, community activists and change agents. We commit ourselves to develop and empower leaders, who will be prepared to make their own choices for the worlds they will change.

Why HBCUs?

Because our nation needs us to remain and move forward in its economic pursuits and its global competitiveness. Where else can your daughters or sons develop as their authentic selves? Where else could you aspire/inspire to impact our nation’s economy, climate concerns, health care, education, entertainment, government or business worlds?

Where else will you be close enough to have conversations and discussions with thought leaders and experts? Where else will you feel safe and welcomed? Psychologically? Emotionally? Socially? Physically? In our historically Black colleges and universities. I chose Spelman College, as a student (1978-1982), as a faculty member (1992-2002) and now, as an administrator.