My HBCU Comeback Moment: Find A Way Or Make One

"The power of HBCUs is that in your most weary moments, our people are light and hope personified."

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Photo: Courtesy of Sean H. Palmer

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.

In 2002, after my year as SGA President and while working on my graduate thesis at Clark Atlanta University, I navigated a major depressive episode. Reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attack, the passing of my grandmother, my mother’s failing health and the impending dissolution of my marriage, I was at my wit’s end. I’d literally come to Atlanta and lost everything I loved.


After a year of working at J.Crew in Lennox Mall and working on my thesis, I was offered a position at Paine College that would become my first full-time professional position. When I thought I was interviewing to be a dorm director, the illustrious Dr. Shirley Ann Redd Lewis, President of the College, asked me to lead the Division of Student Activities and Residence Life.

With that position came the most money I had ever made at the time. When Dr. Lewis gave me my first real job, she gave me a chance in the most broken part of my life. Overnight, I went from having nothing to every being new. A new job, apartment, car, church, environment and sense of purpose. That October, I was able to go back to Homecoming at Clark with my head held high. I wasn’t walking anymore. I could drive now. The rumors had subsided and the dark place I was in just a year prior, when I thought deeply about suicide, made way for a much brighter one filled with hope and possibilities.


What Dr. Shirley Ann Redd Lewis and Paine College taught me echoed with what Clark Atlanta consistently said to us: find a way or make one. It isn’t just a motto; it’s more than a saying. It’s a way of life. It is pedagogy, theology and ontology wrapped into one. Through those institutions and the dynamic leader who took a chance on me, I learned that the power of HBCUs is that they literally give you a chance to succeed and that, in your most weary moments, our people are light and hope personified. Cheers to Paine College for the chance! Cheers to Clark Atlanta University for the training!

Sean H. Palmer is Director of the Upperman African American Cultural Center at University of North Carolina-Wilmington