Celebrating “A Different World”

Tonight I was reminded of the specialness of historical black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I attended a mix-and-mingle dinner downtown at a fab international cuisine restaurant. It was organized by the Black Grad Student’s Association and brought students on the grad and doctoral levels together to connect over mojitos and yum appetizers.

It was an amazing experience! Conversing with these future academics, pharmacists, civil rights attorneys and political leaders was an opportunity that I will never dismiss the importance of.

But what intrigued me most about this dinner was that over 50 percent of us graduated from HBCUs. It was an instant conversation starter for us. We bonded as we reminisced on fried chicken Wednesdays and our battles with financial aid.

The significance of this was put into context when a gentleman who attended a PWI* told me, “An HBCU for undergrad and a PWI for grad makes you much more marketable. I wish I had attended an HBCU.”

I’m thankful that I did.

I’m a proud product of Bennett College, one of the greatest HBCUs in the United States. I’ll admit it: I’m biased, but I have reason to be. The Oasis is one of the South’s most concealed weapons. Bennett is a small, liberal arts institution that focuses as much on academic development as spiritual and emotional growth.

The curriculum encompasses required service hours and a lecture series that brings all of the Belles together twice a week. The professors are all accomplished in their own right, but still take time to mentor their students.

Our alumnae are a tad bit traditional and still think we should have etiquette courses. And we place importance on exercising our right to vote; Bennett Belles are voting Belles.

BCFW is producing brilliant women that are changing the world. We walk through the iron gates as teenagers on the brink of womanhood and leave as women with an arsenal of viable skills. Belles excel.

But from the outside peering in, Bennett College doesn’t seem as genius as it is. The campus is small; the buildings are in need of serious upgrades.

Until the construction of the Honors Residence Hall and the Global Learning Center in 2011, we hadn’t had new buildings in almost three decades. Sometimes, the Office of Financial Aid and the business office don’t communicate and our refund checks are distributed long after our rent is due. Oh, and we were on accreditation probation for fiscal instability.

Despite all of the shortcomings, there is something special about Bennett. It doesn’t have the prestige of Hampton, the bourgeoisie of Howard or the glitz of Florida A&M; but black women are educated and celebrated here and there is no greater experience in the world.

I owe exposure to the HBCU experience to “A Different World,” which aired its first episode 25 years ago. The Bill Cosby-produced spinoff to “The Cosby Show” showcased Denise Huxtable’s adventures at the fictitious Hillman College.

Museum explains the significance of “A Different World” much more articulately than I ever could:

A Different World is also notable for its attempts to explore a range of social and political issues rarely addressed on television–let alone in situation comedies. Featured characters regularly confronted such controversial topics as unplanned pregnancy, date rape, racial discrimination, AIDS, and the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings.

Many observers also commended the series for extolling the virtues of higher education for African American youth at a time when many black communities were in crisis. In the final analysis, A Different World might best be remembered for its cultural vibrancy, its commitment to showcasing black history, music, dance, fashion and attitude.

This quality, no doubt, was due in large measure to the closeness of the series’ creative staff to the material: the series featured a black woman as producer-director (Allen), another as headwriter (Susan Fales), and several other people of color (male and female) in key creative positions. Few series in the history of television can claim a comparable level of black representation in key decision-making positions.”

Witnessing the black excellence showcased on this sitcom convinced me to attend an HBCU. There were no other options for me; I didn’t even submit college applications to PWIs. As a preteen, I was determined to attend an institution with as much historical value and adventure as Hillman. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I bonded with women that I will consider sisters forever.  We fought hard and loved harder. We gossiped. We studied. We graduated. Our late night excursions to Cookout (it’s a southern slice of heaven) and wild adventures at Collegiate Commons will be experiences that I’ll remember for decades to come.

Most importantly, I received an education that has prepared me for success. I’m on a full-ride scholarship to graduate school. That’s due in large part to BCFW’s preparation.

Since I’m a first-generation college student, I wanted to blaze the trail for others on my family tree to attend HBCUs as well. That’s what the Huxtables did for Denise. She hailed from a long lineage of Huxtables who were educated at Hillman. I’ve begun planting the Bennett seeds in my two small nieces’ heads, so when it’s their time to decide on a college, BCFW will be at the top of their lists.

Often, I hear political pundits question if HBCUs are still relevant in the “post-racial” world. To that, I say that HBCUs were designed to even the educational field for African Americans. To combat their next argument that HBCUs are no longer needed to serve that purpose, all I do is point to the statistics:**

  • Nine of the top 10 colleges that graduate most of the African American students who go on to earn Ph.D.s are HBCUs.
  • More than 50 percent of the nation’s African American public school teachers and 70 percent of African American dentists and physicians earned degrees at HBCUs.
  • Over half of all African American professionals are graduates of HBCUs
  • In 2000, Xavier University in New Orleans produced more successful African American medical school applicants (94) than Johns Hopkins (20), Harvard (37), and the University of Maryland (24) combined. Two other HBCUs also placed in the top ten producers of medical school applicants, including Morehouse (33), and Spelman (38).
  • Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation’s African American women who go on to earn doctorates in all science fields; more than produced by the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters combined (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley, and Vassar Colleges).
  • HBCUs significantly contribute to the creation of African American science degree holders: agriculture (51.6 percent), biology (42.2 percent), computer science (35 percent), physical science (43 percent), and social science (23.2 percent).
  • HBCUs produce 44 percent of all African American bachelor’s degrees awarded for communications technology, 33 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded for engineering technology, and 43 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded for mathematics.
  • HBCUs produce 40 percent of all African American doctorate degrees awarded for Communications.

HBCUs are still serving their purpose and so is “A Different World.” Through reruns and Nick-at-Nite marathons, this classic is reaching a new generation of future college students that are undecided about where to attend. It makes the HBCU life appealing and shows these teens that it’s an experience worth having.

And there might be more on the horizon. “A Different World” is in the news again after iconic director and choreographer, Debbie Allen, who some credit with revitalizing the show after its first season, suggested that the sitcom be resurrected for a new millennial audience.

How surreal would that be? I’m hoping it comes to fruition sooner rather than later.

“A Different World” is special because HBCUs are unique meccas of black folks being educated together. And there are few things as important as bringing that reality to our prime time blocks again.

* Predominantly White Institution

**Courtesy of ThinkHBCU.org

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