HBCUs: More Than A School—A Community Where Tomorrow’s Leaders Thrive

HBCUs: More Than A School - A Community Where Tomorrow’s Leaders Thrive

By: Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, Head of STEM Education, Siemens Foundation

Editor’s Note: This week, The Siemens Foundation and Siemens Healthineers announced they are teaming up with Testing for America (TFA) to donate $3 million in  funding and COVID-19 testing technologies to support the safe reopening of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country. In this post, the author reflects on her own experience attending an HBCU and the importance of supporting them during the COVID-19 crisis.


I graduated from Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., in 1987. The school is part of the Southern University System, the only historically black college and university (HBCU) system in the U.S., which counts about 12,000 students across five campuses.


At that time, Southern University Baton Rouge was one of the largest HBCUs by enrollment. While a typical HBCU had between 1,000 and 4,000 students, we had nearly 10,000. And yet, despite our size, my college experience felt familial.


When I left Atlanta for Baton Rouge, Southern University became my new home. There’s often an expectation that when you leave home for an HBCU you will live there and you will thrive. You should swim upstream now and fight the current that can pull you back. 


This shift of leaving your family and jumping into the world is cushioned at HBCUs in a remarkable way. An HBCU campus is rooted in community, stable and nurturing. Its staff are the wise leaders, the elders who keep a close eye. Students form the bond of siblings. A metamorphosis occurs and extended family is born. My closest friends to this day are from my days at Southern.


Not every student arrives with the same means. I vividly remember how I bonded strongest with the other young ladies in my dorm when we pooled our resources, voluntarily. Whether it be before a football game or before a big dance, everyone brought what they could to the table—snacks from your food stash, a trendy outfit, or a few accessories.  We shared freely and without judgment to create moments of equality for all of us to thrive together. I recall the excitement I felt going out to dinner (a rare treat) when my parents came for a visit from Atlanta my freshman year. It never occurred to me that they may not have been prepared to take my seven suite mates to dinner as well. Years later, we laughed about this because they were my new family and a treat for one meant a treat for all.   

A mutual, close-knit respect also developed between students and professors. Yes, they were there to teach and mentor and immerse us in our studies, but they wouldn’t hesitate to open their homes for a special Sunday dinner invite or to offer transportation when we were in a bind. They would even store our belongings between semester breaks. And, if you weren’t showing up, if you weren’t achieving what your professors knew you were capable of, you could most certainly expect them to call you in and inquire if there was an issue they could help you with, or even call home and discuss support opportunities with your parents, if necessary. 


The amazing community nurtured at HBCUs is too crucial to be at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, a virus that has disproportionately affected people of color since the beginning of the pandemic. HBCUs make up just 3 percent of all college and universities in the U.S. but produce nearly 20 percent of all African-American graduates. These communities are incubating the leaders of tomorrow. Already, they are swimming upstream, and COVID-19 is the newest current they must avoid. I am honored to be part of an organization that values the role that HBCUs play in providing the extended family these students need to thrive and the access to resources that allow students and educators to be proactive in the fight against COVID-19. 


Published on: September 17, 2020