In this multipart series, HBCU alums share their favorite moments from their alma mater as a testament to what these institutions have meant to them.
Many select historically Black colleges and universities because they provide us with a “home away from home”. The administrators, faculty and staff become extended family and kin. Not in a way that infantilizes us but in a way that gives us extra breathing room as we move toward adulthood and greater independence. They are the support we need as we take steps to form our identities and world views away from the parents and loved ones who guided our youth.
That’s exactly who Dr. Michelle B. Releford was for me when I met her in the Hauser Student Center on the campus of Winston-Salem State University in 2009. During my freshman seminary, Dr. Releford introduced herself and noted that she previously worked at a neighboring HBCU. I booed and the class erupted in laughter. Dr. Releford looked at me—eyeball to eyeball—and gave me the middle finger while saying the two words that often accompany that salutation. Most people would have been turned off but, immediately, I fell in love. She would not only become my mentor; Dr. Michelle Releford would be the driving force that kept me in college.
She employed me. She chastised me. She fed me. She taught me. She loved me.
When I failed my biology course (putting an end to my 4.0 GPA), Dr. Releford even called my mother and offered to “beat my ass” if necessary. That summer, Dr. Releford placed me in campus housing, ensured I had a job and food, and made me sit at the Student Center desk every day and do my homework. Her care for me reinforced the truth that HBCUs are a family. She taught me the importance of collective responsibility, and her witness informs the work I do as a higher education professional.
Dr. Releford passed away in 2011. Yet, her impact, guidance and example hold me and so many others to this very day.
Dustin J. Pickett is Director for the Multi-Ethnic Education and Engagement Center at the University of Dayton.