Reflections of an HBCU Grad Turned PWI Grad Student
Black folk that have or will earn their Ph.D will more than likely hold their Bachelor’s degree from an HBCU and their Ph.D will be from PWI. This is not the beginning of the tired HBCU vs. PWI debate, but instead a simple fact that many Black graduate students are embarking on more than just the normal graduate school struggles; the social climate is different. The rules are different and they may not know those new rules and it’s unlikely anyone share them unless there’s another Black student. Which isn’t always the case — it certainly wasn’t my case when I started my Masters’ program at University of Illinois.
I am a proud graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. I grew up in Detroit, MI where I went to Detroit Public School and my high school was 97% Black. Until I got to Illinois, my classroom had been mostly Black. My experience at A&T was amazing. It was there I hold some of my wildest, most cherished memories. I discovered my passion for research and the support of my department led me to aspire to pursue a Ph.D.My HBCU prepared me for the academic rigor of graduate school but I had no clue how to navigate the space socially. I was the sole Black person in my program of about 150 graduate students. If I would have gotten my Ph.D. there, I would have been the second Black woman, the first was another A&T graduate from, like 10 years ago. Quite frankly, I was in shock and it was the first time I was really excruciatingly self-aware of my own Black ass. And I wasn’t really sure what to do.
Like most graduate students, I had some uncomfortable encounters and made some missteps. In this piece, I just wanted to share the one piece of advice and one strategy I wish I had when going into graduate school.
Advice: Make your own community.
While HBCUs at large have a great sense of community (see: GHOE, Howard’s Homecoming, SpelHouse, etc.) you still had to make friends, cultivate your study group and establish relationships with your professors to get through undergrad. The same is to be said for grad school, but it’ll probably look a little different. It could be your cohort. It could be the other Black grad students at your university. It could be a mixture of people who you connect with throughout your program. You decide who is in your community. I choose to be an active member of the Black Graduate Student Association, which is a national organization for Black graduate students. At Illinois, I was able to meet other grad students, many of whom where HBCU grads who I could connect as we were all looking for the same thing. I am active at my current university and enjoy networking with other graduate students going through this journey with me and look like me.
I also encourage you to diversify your community as well. Although my HBCU experience was diverse, during my Master’s program I think I responded to being so uncomfortable of being ‘the one and only’ in my department that everyone I chose to be in my community was Black including the professors and staff. Small hiccup though — none of those people were in my department. So they had no clout or inside information when I need help with something specific to my department. It wasn’t completely to my advantage. And I didn’t go to the social events or anything offered because it was different than what I used to. That attitude did no serve me well and I’ve abandoned it in my doctoral program. I meet and chat with other graduate students and they’re all pretty cool. I’ll admit my chit-chat with professors need some improvement but I don’t avoid my advisor (beyond our meetings) like I did in my Masters program.
Strategy: Microagressions may happen and it can be handled without conflict.
If your experience prior to graduate school was similar to mine you may not even know what a microaggression is. Microagressions are subtle insults directed at people of color automatically or unconsciously, a concise list of examples can be found here. If the microagression or blatant racism is in conversation, I learned that asking someone, “What do you mean by that?” in a genuinely curious tone is supposed to do the trick. It makes the aggressor trip up and think about what they’ve said and hopefully quickly correct themselves and apologize.
Another remark that’s more of an issue for Black women is the greeting, “Hey girl!” I’m not a fan. Especially if I see that the greeter only says it to me or other WOC. I ask, “Do you greet all the women you see like that?” The answer is more than likely a no, so I request that they use the same greeting for me as they do with the other women graduate students. Homie don’t play that.
Deciding to attend a PWI for graduate school after attending an HBCU is very common but there are some experiences dealing with race that aren’t typically present at HBCUs. Just like we learn about our field, we also have to learn the unspoken rules of academia. Most of this takes place outside of coursework and research, it lies in our social interactions with faculty and other grad students. This advice isn’t comprehensive by any means but some real information I wish I had as a new graduate student and serves as a good reminder as a Ph.D student. I hope its helpful for you the reader as well.
About the Author
Allanté is a first year Ph.D student at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Civil Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy. She is the creator of Blk + in Grad School, a podcast where she shares her journey and the stories of other Black folk in academia each week. You can find out more about Blk + in Grad School by clicking here. Follow her on Twitter @blkingradschool.