The HBCU Choice: One of the Best Decisions of My Life

I recently had a conversation where I was asked if I regretted attending a historically black college (HBCU). I told my inquisitor that I was fairly confident that I could have done exceptionally well at an elite, liberal arts school like Smith, Wellesley, or Bryn Mawr, but the confidence, cultural pride, and life-changing development that I gained through my college experience could have only happened at an HBCU. Thirteen years later, my choice to attend Morgan State University, remains one of the best decisions of my life.

I began my journey at Morgan as a junior in January 2000. I chose not to return to my first university, UMBC, after the end of my sophomore year. UMBC was and is still a great university but I ALWAYS felt that something was missing for me. That something was answered for me the second that I stepped foot on Morgan’s campus. I can’t put words to that feeling, but on that cold, grey January morning as I stood waiting outside the McKeldin Student Center with D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel?” blasting on the outside speakers from Morgan’s radio station, WEAA, and the chimes from Holmes Hall beckoning students to another day of learning, I knew that this hallowed university was exactly where I belonged.   

My first class at Morgan was English 347: Women Writers of the African Diaspora (don’t ask me why I remember the course name and number!) with the legendary Dr. Ruthe Sheffey. I remember stepping into that classroom and seeing one of my fellow Western High alums, Lakeisha, sitting in the top row and I was immediately comforted to know I would have a friendly face and ally in the class. And boy did I need it! Dr. Sheffey was NO joke. We read eight of the DEEPEST, black feminist novels I have EVER laid my eyes on and our entire grade was based on just THREE papers (!!!) for the entire course. I think I actually spoke in tongues when I saw an “A” on my transcript at the end of the semester.

During our final day in Dr. Sheffey’s class, she asked if anyone would be interested in being her editorial assistant for the summer for the literary society that she founded, The Zora Neale Hurston Society. The position would pay $800 for the entire summer. The opportunity to earn $800, tax-free dollars was just like earning $800 million in my 21-year-old world and I immediately said, “Yes.” I had the privilege of attending that year’s Zora Neale Hurston conference in downtown Baltimore and spending the rest of the summer editing scholarly submissions for the next edition of the Society’s journal.  The day that lives in infamy for me from that summer was Dr. Sheffey actually coming to my house and going over the final edits for the journal. I’m still fuzzy on exactly what happened, but all I remember is Dr. Sheffey sitting on MY COUCH and yelling at me to get those edits together by the end of the day. I was absolutely TERRIFIED in that moment, but I can look back now and see what an honor it was to have a Morgan legend sitting in my house and taking the time to put me one step closer to my editorial dreams.

When I returned to Morgan for my second semester, I had some kind of scheduling glitch, and I wasn’t able to get all the courses that I originally wanted to take.  I was scrambling to fill up the rest of my schedule and the only thing that was open was English 361: Introduction to News Writing (again don’t ask me why I remember the course number!). The name for the professor beside the course was “BROWN” and I had yet to hear my fellow English majors mention this name so I figured no bad reviews was good news for me. Little did I know this yet to be known Professor Brown would change my life.

Apparently Professor Brown had an administrative scheduling snafu on his end, too, and only had three students signed up for his first course. Lucky for me, the other two students in his class that semester were more interested in majoring in Bridge-ology (that is hanging out on Morgan’s famed “Bridge” instead of going to class) and he and I spent the majority of that 16-week semester together, just the two of us.

For one of my first assignments for his class, I took a leap of faith and included a very personal story about losing my mom to breast cancer in a story I titled “Breast Cancer and Black Women.” I was scared that I was a little too candid for a news writing class, but I handed it in and nervously waited for my grade. The following week, I was SHOCKED when I saw an “A” at the top of my paper and even more surprised when Professor Brown told me that I should submit it to Morgan’s student newspaper “The Spokesman.” I eventually did (this was my first published piece EVER!) and he and I started having in-depth conversations about the type of writing and editing that I wanted to do in my career.

Right before the Thanksgiving break, Professor Brown asked me if I would be interested in doing an internship at “Heart & Soul” magazine. I said, “Whaaat?” “Heart & Soul” was one of my FAVORITE magazines at the time right after “Essence” and “Vibe.” I told him, “OF COURSE I would be interested!” He pulled a few strings with the editors at “Heart & Soul,” and I had an interview scheduled on December 1, 2000. After the break, we spent the next class session talking about how to maximize my ONE (!!) published clip and emphasize what I could bring to the magazine.

When December 1st arrived, Professor Brown graciously took the MARC train with me from Baltimore to DC for my interview at Heart & Soul’s headquarters at BET Studios. I was a big JUMBLE of nerves, but he was doing his best to calm me down. When we arrived at Union Station an hour later, I was overwhelmed. I had never been in a train station that large before. He walked me to the other side of the station to catch a cab to the studio. Just as I became the next person in line for a cab, I suddenly froze. I looked back at Professor Brown with wide, terrified eyes and he calmly said, “Go ahead, Leah. You can do this.” I got in that cab and that day became the official start of my career as an editor. Thirteen years later, I’m blessed that I can still call him for editorial advice and a shot of confidence whenever I need it.  

I’m certain that I would have still had a successful editorial career if I had attended a more illustrious university. But that experience sure wouldn’t have included a Ruthe Sheffey or a Frank Dexter Brown. My degree wouldn’t have included some of the best days of my life with my legendary Holmes Hall crew. My bachelor’s degree would not have been complete without that infamous day in Dr. Bayton’s Literary Criticism when we discussed exactly what D’Angelo was doing in his “How Does It Feel” video. (I’m almost positive that that discussion could ONLY occur at an HBCU! Ha!) My journey as an English major wouldn’t have been the same without going through the torture of studying for the English Senior Comprehensive Exam with my crew. (Those two weeks also brought about the discovery that my boy Amon indeed knew how to pray. Ha!) And my graduation day surely wouldn’t have been capped off with the legendary Morgan State University choir taking everybody to church with a soul stirring rendition of the classic hymn “It Is Well.”

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Me and Part of the Legendary Holmes Hall crew, Graduation Day, May 2002

Maybe I’d would be further along in my career or earning a higher salary or have a deeper Rolodex or be married to a white guy named Buff and summering in the Vineyard. But would my life have been as rich, as full, or as complete without my HBCU experience at Morgan?

Absolutely not. 

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Amon S. Sheard says:

    LOL. I would trade those experiences with you guys for nothing!

  2. Amon S. Sheard says:

    *would not

  3. curvyceo says:

    But don’t a lot of vineyard folk go to Howard, Hampton and so on? I went to a PWI…a *very* PWI (lol) and always thought it would’ve been nice to do an exchange for a semester at a black college. I remember visiting my brother in college (he went to an HBCU) and being in shock by the fact that *everybody* was black. It was an amazing experience.

  4. curvyceo says:

    I want to add a second thought here: although I went to a really, really white school, that fact made the black community (all 10% of us! *lol*) that much tighter and closer knit on campus….

  5. Kevin says:

    Wow Leah, you got me in tears reminiscing over those Morgan days. That DeAngelo stuff, only at an HBCU. You can’t get that at Towson, lol. Great memories, great times. No regrets at all. We had some of the best professors in English. Quality education. I’ve worked with people over the years who went to Brown, Dartmouth, NYU, Syracuse… None are ahead of me in the profession because of where they went. If you work hard and work contacts, doors open.

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