Last weekend, I traveled to my hometown of Jackson, MS to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mom and to Tougaloo College to perform my annual national alumni board duties as the Atlanta alumni chapter president, Southeastern Regional Representative, and Assistant Secretary of the Board (and yes, I had to take minutes for a three-hour meeting, lol).
Every time I go back to campus, I’m reacquainted with my memories of “coming of age” at Tougaloo. A pretty precocious 16-year-old, I was pretty sure I was making the correct decision by bypassing my senior year to enter college and start pursuing further education in my passion–mathematics–as well as an education in life and an advanced education in black history. Growing up, I was exposed to lots of heritage because my parents were very determined to ensure that I knew about where we’ve come from and what I would endure to get to my future. Attending HBCUs, for summer academic programs and for college, solidified all of that–by showing me that there were lots–i.e. a campus full–of young black scholars with different backgrounds and goals that were still very much like me. This was important to a kid who grew up one of a handful of black kids in the gifted program, the accelerated classes, the AP classes, the academic organizations at a majority white school. I kept wondering–is it really diversity if I’M the diversity? It meant volumes to me to see that I was not an anomaly. In addition, as a math student, it was important that I had professors who made a conscious choice to teach at my institution–not because they had to, but because they cherished the meaning of it–and who made a concerted effort to push students to the cliff and made us jump into our unknown greatness. First, Dr. Raffoul, who was the dean of the math department when I got to Tougaloo, sat down with me in his office and told me that although I hadn’t taken AP Calculus (since I hadn’t been a high school senior), he was confident that I could take Calculus I with a bunch of upperclassmen and excel. It was tough at first, but with help from mentors and my professor, I aced it, setting the stage for several more semesters of pure math training. Fast forward to my sophomore year midway through Differential Equations when Dr. Fahmy, whose opinion I cherish until this day, challenged me because I had been slacking off. We had a conversation that I’ve never forgotten because it shook me to the core. He told me that when I came into his class as a freshman, I was something special–I was going places. But lately, I had been merely mediocre. And if I wanted to settle for mediocrity, that was fine, but surely he wouldn’t be spending so much time supporting me and helping me to find opportunities to shine and prepare for my future. I didn’t cry in front of Dr. Fahmy, but as soon as I passed through his doorway, I bawled from Kincheloe Hall to my room in Berkshire Hall, and I got my stuff together immediately. I got my first B the semester before, but that was the only B he gave me for the rest of my college career–and do believe that I worked for those As.
The other thing that made Tougaloo so special is our tie to black history. Tougaloo was vital to the civil rights movement, and it was nothing extraordinary to have a conversation with someone who was right there in it. As an example, just last weekend, I got history lessons while touring the new Bennie G. Thompson Academic and Civil Rights Center. First, while giving an address at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Congressman Thompson, class of ’68, told us about his time at Tougaloo and how he met while on campus not only his wife, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.
Then, while looking at the beautiful photos that adorn the hallways of the building, Dr. Doris Browne, class of ’64 and the VP of the Tougaloo College Board of Trustees (and my Gamma Omicron soror), told me about her time at Tougaloo–she graduated at 18–and her academic decisions after she left! She was friends with the Tougaloo Nine, and she told one of my classmates and me the story of what they did and why. She then pointed out Joan Trumpauer, the first white member of Delta Sigma Theta, who she still knows today (and they both live in the DC area), and Anne Moody. Now, my eyes got big when she said Anne Moody because I read her book Coming of Age in Mississippi when I was in junior high, and she’s always been a historical figure in my head–but not a real person. It really means so much to me that those kinds of conversations are commonplace if you’re interested.
Finally, the connections are invaluable. I meet someone new every time I visit the yard, and more often than not, seasoned alumni are happy to give encouragement and advice to students and younger alums. After the TCNAA meeting on Saturday morning, I met Eddie Irions, class of ’60, who is the Memphis chapter president. He told me how he’s revived the Memphis chapter and gave me suggestions on how to meet my goals with the Atlanta chapter. He gave me this quote, that I’ve been chewing on ever since:
Inch by inch, it’s a cinch… By the yard, it’s hard.
Simple, but so resounding because I’m the queen of wanting to get it done NOW. But I’m learning that some things just take time and small steps, and I’m happy that a fellow math graduate took the time to have a 30 minute impromptu conversation with me because he wants to see us succeed.
This is the testimony of an HBCU graduate. Despite the advice of my high school counselors to stay my senior year and see who else offers me money (simple answer–any school to which I would have applied) and the advice of people who thought a 16-year old on campus was a bad idea, I absolutely made the right decision. The time and dedication and effort put into students at HBCUs and maintaining ties to our values while forging ahead with 21st century initiatives (omg, Tougaloo has so much in the works!!) are truly noteworthy. No, HBCUs aren’t perfect, but what institution is? It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just a place to fill our brains with more information (although Tougaloo, for one, does a very spectacular job doing so, ;))–but it’s also a place to fill our hearts and spirits with motivation, self-confidence, a strong identity, and meaningful connections.
Now, it’s just up to us to support our institutions–it’s up to us to make sure that they maintain viability and that we encourage continued relevance. Alumni giving and community support are imperative to ensuring that our institutions are able to train our children for the world–building and expanding networks, encouraging entrepreneurship, finding more and more avenues for research and innovation, but most of all, providing them with the foundational skills and knowledge that are necessary for critical thought and good decision-making. They’re our schools and our future. As President Bevery Wade Hogan said this weekend:
If the people who know you best don’t invest, why would anyone else?
Let’s make it happen.