As a Harvard School of Education graduate, I was elated and moved to see the global conversation that the creators of the recent I, Too, Am Harvard and Being Black at the University of Michigan campaigns sparked about the experience of underrepresented groups on college campuses, including the one where I earned my master’s degree.
There’s no doubt that top institutions can feel unwelcoming to students of color. On top of the expected academic challenges, we have to battle the views of some in the school community that affirmative action has given us an undeserved opportunity.
But at Harvard, I was much less troubled than many others by those perceptions. I didn’t question my preparedness, and I was more energized than bothered by the occasional expectation that I “speak for the race” in class or by interrogations about how I handled my hair. My confidence that I belonged, and my enthusiasm for taking advantage of every opportunity the Ivy League institution offered, never faltered during my time there.
Why? I believe it was because I was fortified by my undergraduate experience at Hampton University.
That’s right, it was the little Virginia HBCU that took me—an African-American graduate of a small vocational high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.—and transformed me intellectually into Ivy League material, and psychologically into a student who could find the motivation and support to thrive anywhere.
Could I have been as well prepared elsewhere? It’s definitely possible. But as HBCUs face financial challenges that inspire another wave of questions about whether they’re still “relevant,” I feel more moved than ever to talk about why Hampton was not only relevant but also life changing for me.
Before arriving there, I’d excelled in school, but my high school coursework didn’t prepare me for the rigorous academic demands of my Hampton professors. This made my first semester a time of adjustment, which brought with it a realization that it would take more sacrifice, grit and determination than I’d planned in order to thrive. But the wake-up call wasn’t demoralizing because Hampton provided mentors and academic support that enabled me to become a better writer, speaker and thinker.
Taking advantage of those resources and getting adjusted was just the first step. I was encouraged to challenge myself further by joining the Honors College. Led by Freddye Davy, an endowed professor and a staple on Hampton’s campus until her passing in 2012, Honors College offered me exposure and experiences I never had before. I traveled internationally for the first time, spending a semester in Hangzhou, China. I helped organize a student conference. I completed a senior capstone project that mirrored the demands of a graduate-school thesis.
Being on an HBCU campus, I felt I had no excuse for failure. The level of accountability presented directly by friends from around the country—and indirectly by the vision of a sea of brown faces going to class, studying, serving and leading—was enough to inspire me to be the best version of myself.
That feeling stayed with me, and as a result, the Harvard experience was socially and psychologically easier for me than it was for many other black students. Sure, Hampton was almost all black, but it was there that I first experienced a new level of diversity and formed meaningful relationships with people from different socioeconomic and family backgrounds. The people who looked like me represented a huge range of experiences, including those who had attended prep schools and whose families had long histories of educational achievement and professional success. Getting to know them prepared me to transition into the diverse group of students who were my Harvard classmates.
During my sophomore year in college, I reached out to a Hampton alum sister, Roslyn Das, the first lady at my church in Virginia, and told her that I felt I needed to manage my time even better. She helped me organize a vigorous though manageable schedule that would ensure I had set times to study, eat, rest and have time to enjoy my college experience. It helped me gain the focus to succeed as a well-rounded student, become Sport Management Major of the Year and graduate magna cum laude in three years. I used this same structure to set up my study times during my tenure at Harvard.
Though many students at other universities chided Hampton for its curfew restrictions, dress code and other strict policies, these rules influenced me to set standards and structures for managing my workload and activities, as well as for my personal presentation. I maintained those habits when I arrived in Cambridge, Mass., and that helped me focus on the most important thing: the amazing educational opportunity I was offered.
When my roommate told me during freshman year that she’d chosen to attend Hampton because it was “the Harvard of the HBCUs,” I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Today I appreciate Hampton for what it is, and consider it not a substitute for Harvard but an essential part of my personal pathway there.
Editor’s note: Read about the record acceptance of black students at Harvard here.
Mia Hall is a reporter, speaker and host who speaks and writes on topics including community outreach, sports-business careers, mentoring and youth development. She is currently a community manager at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and blogs at Mia’s Full Court Press. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.