I grew up in an HBCU household. Three generations of my family are alumni of South Carolina State University: both sets of grandparents, my parents, and my eldest sister. At the first college football game I attended as a spectator, I was there to watch the Marching 101 of SCSU “do their thang” at halftime. I grew up loving HBCUs and what they provided to my family, both educationally and culturally.
But growing up in my South Carolina public schools, the first question about sports that I was asked was “Clemson (University) or (University of South) Carolina?” I had no dog in that race, so I normally just responded with “I don’t care/know.”
Then, it came time for me to apply to college. Knowing I wanted to major in International Relations, I tried to find schools that would nurture my future career as an international human rights lawyer. I applied to the most popular colleges in SC, the colleges with the most money to offer to me for my hard-earned, exemplary grades: the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. I applied to one HBCU, North Carolina Central University, where I was promised a place in their Honors College and all the benefits that included. I applied to the University of Georgia because my recruiter mentioned that in a school with as many students as UGA, it was like having a little HBCU within the PWI (Predominantly White Institution). All of the other schools I applied to were up north. I was 6 when I moved to South Carolina from southern New Jersey, and I still visited my family up there, so the possibility of a northern campus felt like going to my “second home.” American University, Georgetown University, and the University of Pennsylvania all boasted superior academic programs and social atmospheres. Sadly, my South Carolina high school’s curriculum wasn’t adequate to apply to many more selective out-of-state universities. If I hadn’t taken it upon myself to take extra courses, I wouldn’t have been able to even apply to any of the Northern schools on my list.
Before I applied to my SC schools, I’d only visited University of South Carolina once, for cheerleading camp as a middle schooler. I had no idea what campus life at these schools was like. I later remedied that by visiting my younger sibling, who also broke the HBCU tradition and attended Clemson, but I’d already made my decision to go north. And, though I had the time of my life and was happy my sibling had made some amazing (mostly Black) friends, I still knew Clemson was not the right fit for me.
Ultimately, I chose the University of Pennsylvania because I attended their Multicultural Scholars Weekend the April before I graduated from high school. Penn paid for all my expenses at the event—including flights to and from home, meals, and a place to stay—and made me feel legitimately wanted. The majority of students invited to this action-packed trip were students of color or minorities in some other way. Penn made sure to highlight all the current Penn Quakers of Color had to offer. There were performances by the school’s only (multicultural) gospel choir, the only predominantly Black a cappella group, and some incoming Quakers who had the chance to display their own talents. Another experience that made students like me choose Penn is that there was a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc, probate while all the scholars were present. Coming from a Greek (National Pan-Hellenic) family, I wasn’t sure how black sororities and fraternities functioned at PWIs, but this probate proved I would be around groups I’d been learning about since I was a child. To put it simply, Penn made me feel like family.
My Clemson visit had been a culture shock because nearly everyone had a car. As someone who didn’t get her license and car until the age of 24, this was surreal. Penn, on the other hand, is not a driving campus. All the roads on campus except a few on the edges had been converted into sidewalks where cars weren’t allowed to drive. Even the kids who had trust funds with parents wealthy enough to buy the entire state of Pennsylvania rarely brought their cars to campus. We got around the city by walking, taking SEPTA—Philly’s public transportation system—taking a cab, and using car shares. We also had our own campus public transportation system, though it was unfortunately unreliable, especially when it came to picking up students of color.
One topic that is often overlooked or dismissed when the HBCU vs PWI debate occurs on social media (Twitter is my app of choice) is the cost of tuition. Because of my grades and the amount of scholarships I applied for and won, I would’ve been swimming in money if I had attended either Clemson or University of South Carolina.
Because I chose to go out-of-state, I forfeited all of the scholarship and grant money I would’ve gotten had I stayed in South Carolina. This may sound irrational until you consider how much money I got from the University of Pennsylvania. The Ivy League runs on a need-based system, not merit. They kinda figure, “you’re all smart, so we’ll save our $9.6 billion endowment on students who really need it.” My expected family contribution at Penn was close to $0 because of my single parent’s income, plus I received a refund check because of my Pell Grants.
But there were personal reasons to leave the South altogether. Besides wanting a change of scenery, I left South Carolina to avoid an abusive boyfriend. I knew I needed to get far enough away where he could no longer find me and cause further damage. Those were the primary reasons I did not maintain family tradition and add SCSU to my list of possible schools.Though I dropped out of Penn and now have an upsetting relationship with the school, attending a PWI was the right choice for me. Coming from a town that was approximately 60% Black and 40% white, I wasn’t exposed to any other cultures like I was at Penn. Though my initial major at Penn was International Relations, I learned more about that subject from fellow co-eds outside of the classroom than in the classroom.
I am in no way trying to put down South Carolina colleges or universities. From South Carolina State University, Claflin University and Benedict College to Winthrop University and Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston and all the schools in between, I’m sure there is something for everyone at each of these schools. I just ask that during these HBCU vs PWI debates that people are compassionate and consider financial aid/FAFSA, the student’s intended area study or major, whether the school has free or low cost confidential mental health care, whether a student wants to be closer to sick or dying loved ones, etc. It is not simply “you’re Black: you should be at an HBCU to be surrounded by like-minded Black folk.” It is also NOT OKAY for Black students at PWIs to think they are better than those who choose HBCUs. PWIs often have more funding. More funding means more opportunities, chances to get into programs that will get students into the grad schools or careers of their choice.
My reason here is not to try to sway people planning on going or returning to college to go to a PWI. As much as I loved some experiences there, I experienced some of the most racist things imaginable there and they were of course not publicized because they were committed by White males with multiple other privileges. What I did learn is about all other cultures, including the different cultures within the Black diaspora, and how collaborating with different cultures made for some of the best performances and lectures that I could ever imagine. Make the choice that’s best for you, your family, your major/intended career, and don’t let others make you feel bad for you choice.
Kellee Nicole is a proud two-time college dropout who aims to be as ratchet and Southern as possible. She writes mental health, sports, music as therapy, and small-town/rural life, among other topics.
(photo credit: Wildersee)