Growing up, my sisters and I always heard our parents talk about Prairie View A&M University with admiration and appreciation. As alums, they narrated warm and cold memories of college life. They had a fierce pride of their university and never hesitated to share with anyone who was willing to listen. I observed them get excited when they met a fellow panther in any room, followed by an instantaneous camaraderie. By my junior year in high school, I decided that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps.
PVAMU was an amazing, soul searching, character shaping, and confidence building experience. I am so grateful for my professors, mentors, and classmates (even the annoying ones). I had one-of-a-kind opportunities from freshman to senior year. I traveled the country presenting research, going to conferences, and playing in golf tournaments I didn’t even know existed. I was surrounded by faculty with the title “Dr” who also looked like me (this is one of the major reasons I would go to graduate school to become a doctor either with a DVM or PhD). The customs of the university were also tied to African-American culture. We were students who were learning, trying to do better in all aspects of our lives, and at the same time holding each other accountable when we faltered. Now I am not saying PVAMU was a utopia. However, what I saw every day on campus was not what was commonly portrayed on TV. (If you want to get an idea of campus life at an HBCU, binge watch the hit TV series “A Different World”).
When I decided to go to vet school, I wanted to go to the highest ranked school. At the time, Cornell University topped the list (Yes, I know UC Davis is #1 now, but it wasn’t when I applied). I packed up my belongings and headed for upstate NY. Transitioning from an HBCU to an Ivy League school was challenging, not because of workload (going from undergrad to grad school is a drastic change, no matter the undergraduate school you attended). The environment is the complete opposite of an HBCU. It is generally not described as nurturing. You are constantly reminded that you are a minority. All of a sudden you go from being just one person among a diaspora of the black community to the sole representation, and therefore anything you say and do must be how all black people think and act. The customs of the university have absolutely no tie to your culture and sometime retain hints of when your “kind” could not even attend the school. You are less likely to go to an advisor if you have a problem, because SOME, not all, will respond to you as if you only got into the program due to affirmative action and not on your own merit; therefore, it’s no wonder you’re having problems. These are just a few differences I experienced going from an HBCU to a PWI (predominately white institution). I can honestly say that my HBCU experience helped me develop a strong sense of identity as a black individual and a woman. It allowed me to navigate the sometimes strained social constructs of a PWI and come out on the other end slightly scarred, tough-skinned, and holistically beautiful.
On the flip side, being at an Ivy League school has its own advantages. There is a profound sense of pride that comes with a degree from one of the Ivies. Some may refer to it as an elite aloofness. Others refer to it as being connected to historic, preeminent centers of education in the country that are also internationally well respected. Either way, you enter into a whole network of people you previously did not have access. You’re more likely to meet people who are heirs to outrageous fortunes, speak three languages, or have more stamps on their passport than the states of America. You meet people who don’t have the same religious or political views as you or grew up in another country. I was exposed to a diversity of people who would not be typically found in an HBCU. The experience caused a different kind of growth than undergrad. It made me question dogma that I grew up with and face dogma of others. I was forced to have conversations and work with people that resulted in a moment of insight or ignorance, and sometimes both. It made me aware of the stereotypes I held about others regarding religion, sexuality, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Most people think of a university as just a place to get a degree. However, most of the learning a student experiences happens outside the classroom. While PVAMU developed my sense of self-identity within my community and culture, Cornell developed my sense of understanding and awareness in the world. Both are important, and it is a blessing for a student to have growth in this manner. The culture and environment of an HBCU is a unique experience that can’t be accurately described, only lived. What I can say about HBCU’s is that they will always be relevant. They have their place in American educational history and future just like the Ivy League.