As a proud alumna of Howard University, I can attest that attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) opened a door of opportunity for me that I would not have otherwise experienced. I remember walking on campus for the first time as a freshman, excited to feel at home despite being in an unfamiliar environment. Backed by a supportive community of institutional leaders, faculty, and peer mentors, and a legacy of impact that preceded my class, the journey that followed affirmed that my peers and I should dream and live as ambitiously as we could. Four years later, the walk across the graduation stage set me on a career path to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
One of our core areas of focus at the foundation is the transformation of colleges and universities to increase student success and ensure race, ethnicity, and income are not predictors of that success. Part of this work includes supporting institutions that have been committed to eliminating barriers of entry. Together, Howard University and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) enroll more than a quarter of a million students across the nation—many of which are first-generation students—and offer Black students the affordability, financial support, campus community, and cultural relevance of its academics that help them succeed in life and career beyond graduation.
Today, HBCUs are more relevant than ever. Their gains in accelerating student learning and expanding economic opportunities for Black students are being threatened as the effects of COVID-19 hit communities of color particularly hard. The foundation recognizes the necessity and significance of HBCUs, and as part of our overall COVID-19 response, we have invested in supporting Howard University and five other institutions as they adapt to new realities created by the pandemic. It is important for us to not only support these institutions, but also to understand their challenges and celebrate their perseverance in serving Black students.
This Black History Month, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Elsie L. Scott, Director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership & Public Policy Center at Howard University about the value of HBCUs, the challenges and resilience that Howard University and others are facing, and what she’s most looking forward to in the new year.
Chloe: Howard University has a long-standing history and legacy in supporting Black students in completing their higher education degree with a commitment to students to “learn, lead and embody excellence in truth and service.” What does this look like in 2021?
Dr. Scott: The history of Howard's support for Black students is still grounded in "excellence in truth and service". In 2021, the way the students are supported is a little different because we are in the middle of a pandemic. The University has been holding virtual classes and no students are living on campus. Faculty and staff are not able to interact with students in the ways they have been able to interact before 2020.
Mechanisms have been put in place to continue interaction with and provide support for Howard students. The faculty members have received training to become certified to teach online. The university has partnered with technical corporations to supply students who cannot afford technical equipment and internet services with equipment and services necessary for their coursework. Mental health and counseling services are provided to students who need and want such services.
Chloe: Attending Howard University was an experience that taught me tenacity and true community while affirming my place in the world as a young Black woman. And I believe this is true for many students attending HBCUs. As the Director of the Leadership and Public Policy Center, what do you see as the significance and necessity of HBCUs?
Dr. Scott: I did not attend Howard University, but I did attend an HBCU, Southern University. Attending an HBCU allowed me to study and grow without dealing with racism or racial prejudice and misunderstanding. It placed me in an environment where I was taught that there were not limitations on dreams. It was an empowering environment.
Students today see a Vice President Kamala Harris who is a graduate of Howard. In her they see a woman who is self-confident, smart, a high achiever and someone who looks like them. She will inspire students to reach for the stars. They will see that an HBCU can prepare you for any position in society.
Chloe: COVID-19 has impacted students, and disproportionately students of color in heart-breaking ways. But I am heartened by stories of resilience and hope, especially with young people and students. Have you seen examples of resilience that you can share?
Dr. Scott: We have seen some of our students struggle with health, economic and other types of impediments during the pandemic. One of the most powerful stories I heard about did not take place on our campus. There was a Benedict College student featured on CBC News who was homeless when the college closed last year. She slept in her car, finding safe places to park, and finding places where she could use internet service to attend her classes. She was working two jobs to pay her bills. The challenges that she had to overcome to stay in school and just to survive were heart-breaking, but her tenacity was heart-warming. We are conducting a survey of the experiences of HBCU students during the pandemic. We hope to be able to share similar stories that we learn about during the survey.
Chloe: What are you most looking forward to this year for yourself and for Howard’s students?
Dr. Scott: I had been looking forward to the students having an in-person graduation ceremony, but based on the rate of vaccinations being completed, the ceremony may have to be postponed for another year. Many students have settled into the new normal of virtual classes, but students, faculty and staff are all looking forward to having at least a partial return to campus life in the fall. I look forward to meeting students in person and to them meeting their classmates. One of the attractions of Howard has been its student life activities--Homecoming, political engagement, Greek life and making friends for life. I look forward to the freshmen students getting those experiences.