Attending an HBCU taught me there is no one way to be Black

February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor shares how attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU)—a school founded before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to educate Black students—helped her appreciate the diversity and beauty of Black communities.

When I first stepped onto the Howard University campus in 2011, I had just graduated from a “diverse” high school that was approximately 10% Black (if that) when I attended. Before then, I’d gone to schools that were primarily Black and Latinx, but I had no idea what to expect when going to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), which is a school intended specifically for Black students. Many of my high school friends looked down on me for choosing a “Black school” instead a “diverse” campus like some of the “prestigious” PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) that most of them had sent applications to. I’d get into debates at lunchtime with peers arguing that HBCUs were not as good as PWIs. And to this day, I still don’t quite understand why I had to argue with the few fellow Black students at my high school about the benefits of attending a school with classmates who look like us…but I digress.

The fact is that the one thing I struggled with in high school was making friends. While I didn’t want to admit it then, my race played a big part in my isolation. It goes without saying that being the only Black girl in each of your classes means you’re considered an outsider. I couldn’t connect with my peers culturally, and to be honest, I never really clicked with them at all. Some of my classmates came from money, giving them a totally different perspective on the world than me. Lots of the other Black kids tried to fit in with them—which just wasn’t something I was willing to do. Even as a teenager, I refused to whitewash my identity, and I couldn’t respect those who did.

And don’t get me started on the racial undertones of awkward conversations I found myself in regularly, often about my hairstyles and mannerisms. Until the day I went off to college, my only real friends were my middle school friends—the Black and Latinx kids that understood the world I came from and didn’t make me feel like I needed to be anyone else but myself.

At the time, I agreed with my high school peers that HBCUs weren’t “diverse,” but I wanted to attend one all the same. I was more focused on the greatness that has come from HBCUs more than anything else. The roster of alumni coming out of Howard played a major part in my decision to enroll. Diddy, Taraji P. Henson, Toni Morrison, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Stokely Carmichael, and Thurgood Marshall are just a few of many notable alumni to hail from the illustrious university.

Looking at all of these alumni, it never crossed my mind just how much diversity was in that one group of people alone. Once I unpacked and settled into my dorm in Washington D.C., I quickly that, even on a campus full of people who looked like me, we were all so very different.

An HBCU exposed me to a different kind of diversity, but diversity nonetheless.

Unlike high school, I made friends rather quickly at Howard. Within my first hour of moving in, I was talking and laughing with a group of girls who would be my neighbors.

One of the girls was from an affluent Black neighborhood in the DMV region. Another was from the Caribbean, and this was her first time in the United States. One young woman was the child of a Grammy-nominated artist and record producer. And the list goes on.

In a matter of minutes, I’d found a group of young Black women who were all so different from each other. What we had in common was identifying as Black and striving to be another success story in our community.

Attending an HBCU exposed me to so many things that have become major parts of my identity, and I’m so grateful. During my time at Howard, I learned to embrace so many different Black experiences that I would have never been exposed to had I let my high school peers project their feelings onto me.

For example, you’d be surprised by the number of people in my N.Y.C. neighborhood who have never been out the country, and don’t have the slightest interest in doing so. But my peers pushed me to travel because it was something that had been instilled in them as kids and encouraged on our campus. Thanks to Howard, I fell in love with traveling. My obsession with Nigerian food also began at my HBCU, thanks to the care packages that my friend’s mom would send to help her avoid homesickness. I don’t know how I lived life before having Nigerian jollof rice and stew, but I’m happy to have found it.

Among all of the diverse groups of people I met at Howard, I never once felt like I had to be anyone but myself. In fact, New Yorkers like me were celebrated and welcomed on our campus. We brought our unique style of dress, slang, swagger, and love of hip-hop to our HBCU, and it was appreciated by our peers.

For me, attending an HBCU was like learning a second language. I never let go of the first one, but learning a second expanded my horizons in ways I never knew possible.

My university exposed me to all the diversity that exists even just within the Black community. It made me proud of my Blackness by proving that I didn’t have to suppress it to “fit in.”