Student Affairs Must Take the ‘Ghetto’ Out of the HBCU Experience

The letter below was submitted to the Digest from an HBCU parent. Details on the identity of the student and the institution have been removed.

I am a single parent of a child whom is attending a HBCU. I was so very proud of my daughter attending an HBCU – my daughter was elected to a position in SGA, she’s on the cheerleading squad, and she just made the Dean’s List; all in her 1st semester. But all of this came with a price, as my daughter was very unhappy. She stated the girls and boys were very ghetto, rowdy, hated her for not being ghetto, and most of the facilities were ghetto as well.

She often cried to come home and change colleges-but myself and some chosen alumni begged her to stick it out one year. She has agreed, but I believe it’s the role of parents and the institution to ensure that the students understand that this is ” a learning phase of life.” Ghetto and unruliness will be around you for the rest of your life, and you learn from it; take notes on how to deal with society, roll up your sleeves and accept the challenges…

I ensured that my child understands-NO OTHER COLLEGES HAVE YOUR BEST INTEREST AT HEART.

Regrettably, this is the experience that thousands of students at historically black colleges regularly face. This intersection of youthful immaturity, painful clashes along the socioeconomic strata upon which the HBCU mission is built, and the structural challenges presented by the black college campus, all make for a less-than-favorable experience for many students who are poorly prepared to handle the culture, or don’t want to be bothered with handling it at all.

Are students able to realize the interpersonal responsibilities they have to others and the school? Can they grasp how behavioral and academic outcomes shape institutional perceptions? If not, who then is responsible for taking the ‘ghetto’ out of the HBCU experience?

The answer? HBCU student affairs divisions.

Student affairs is charged with integrating the social, spiritual and service-based experience into the learning environment. For all of the elements of HBCU lifestyle that can be painted as ghetto Рlong lines, bad customer service, bad behavior among roommates, crime on campus, etc; student affairs is responsible for managing and minimizing risk through oversight of financial aid, business auxiliary, residence life, admissions and public safety. Other factors, such as crumbling infrastructure or community issues of crime and poverty, contribute to students classifying a HBCU campus as ghetto. But overall, students are more likely to deride HBCU culture for on-campus elements that can easily be controlled.

Even at the finest HBCUs, ghetto people and service habits can translate into one-semester stays for both high achieving students and those on the academic fringes. Without well-planned and well-marketed student activities, the black college campus is a breeding ground upon which hormones, boredom and drugs and alcohol shape the student social agenda. Without proper scrutiny and concern for business auxiliary services, employees who don’t value their work environment translate their bitterness into the student experience, and their attitudes become the legends of “crazy cafeteria lady,” “that perverted janitor” or “that crazy mofo in the bursar’s office.”

Even if winning athletic programs aren’t in place, students crave campus traditions that make them feel a part of bigger legacy of excellence and school pride. Without regular opportunities to show school pride on the campus and out in the community, HBCU students will treat the school with nothing to celebrate as something to be disrespected – and in the long-term, unsupported.

Historically black colleges are the opposite of ghetto. They are the premier destination for those students seeking to leave the ghetto behind forever, and those alumni and faculty who want to turn the ghetto into a community of pride and productivity. Young adults should be forced to adhere to a code of ethics and responsibility, but it is the black college student affairs division that must make that mandate worth observing.

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  • Gionni Crawford

    Black is beautiful!

  • Alisea Williams- Mc

    “Ghetto and unruliness will be around you for the rest of your life, and you learn from it; take notes on how to deal with society, roll up your sleeves and accept the challenges‚Ķ”

    This mom sounds just like me. I waited my whole life to send my children to HBCUs only to hear one of them inform me last summer, after completing his freshman year at a state-supported HBCU, that things have changed since my good old days in school. Like the anonymous mom’s child, my son was hated by peers for speaking well, studying, and taking school seriously. His experience was in short painful, and yet I did not let him off the hook but simply sent him to a different, private HBCU. He likes the new college much, much better because there are more students there who share his standard of excellence, lots of money flowing into student activities, and administrators who engage students. I pulled rank in the decision concerning where he would go this year, and I will have to live with the repercussions whatever they may be, but I feel as Anonymous Mom does: there is more to be gained from learning to deal with adversity and challenges than from running from them. I have also always preached that dismissing HBCUs for PWIs is trading six in one hand for half a dozen in the other. PWIs do not come without their own sets of issues, and it is no easier to equip our children to deal with those than it is to equip them to deal with ghetto behavior.

  • Jerry

    I have a different aspect on my experience while matriculating at a HBCU. I believe just as life is what you make it, so is the experience of college. There is no secret that the infrastructure at most HBCU’s are not up to date. I believe we have the state in which those universities exist in to thank for this. The respective governors of these states have continued to carry on the tradition of placing advisory boards with folks who seek to make a mockery of these historic institutions. Alumni complain all the time as to the pathetic leadership in its attempt to operate these institutions. We as alum do not get bogged down in their foolishness. Each day we made our strides to keep our university one of the most recognized institutions in the nation. One of the largest alumni base, the most respected athletic fan base in HBCU sports! Innovation and leadership runs through the course of our veins as alum. You can either get caught up in facilities and what others think of you or you can rise to the occasion and PRODUCE!

    HBCU’s will always be at the bottom as it relates to alumni giving back. There is always a lingering thought that someone is stealing the money. This did not just start a few years ago. It goes back to the days of slavery when we were taught not to trust one another. We will however go over to a PWI and trust them when their secretaries are getting paid also extremely high just as HBCU secretaries are for providing “alternative services” after work hours. “Hookups” are everywhere. They did not start at HBCU’s and certainly will not end there. We need to stop attacking ourselves and find out how to move forward and develop the HBCU we wish to see. If you saw something wrong and did not do everything you could to physically change it, then shame on you! I am a proud product of a HBCU. I say it with pride. I also give back even when I don’t have much to give. I set aside $5 from my paycheck and give it to my alma mater. If alumni were really doing this infrastructure would never be a problem. Lastly increasing the enrollment standards would change the the entire landscape of the institutions and would also change the historic purpose. These institutions were created for opportunity becoming selective in enrollment would deny access to many of the very alum we are now asking to support. It’s just a thought. I am not saying I am against it but I think we should weigh the options and create the best solution.

  • Eddie Francis

    I think there is a much broader discussion that needs to take place here. Black folks, by and large, have a mentality of wanting to belong to something that we seem to define as “uniquely black.” It’s the same thing that had black folks in an uproar when “The Cosby Show” came out to screams of “Black people don’t live like that!” in the background. We are simply severely critical of people whom we fear want to get away from what many of us define as an authentic “black” experience.

    So, if I were a student affairs professional, I’d be faced with a quandary of putting probably half of the student population on some kind of social probation for their behavior; and they would think that I was trying to take their “blackness” from them. Let’s look at Hampton’s dread/corn row ban in their MBA program and how many people think it’s linked to taking students’ blackness away.

    I agree that student affairs has to take a stand. I would add that the administration would have to back SA fiercely and work carefully on implementing the policies. What they would have to do, however, is clearly define acceptable behavior and learn to take a few on the chin when they are accused of “trying to be like white schools.”

    • Thoth

      My biggest issue with Hampton’s ban on dreadlocks and corn rows is it doesn’t actually benefit the student. Hampton should be teaching its students how to start a business, how to create economic independence and wealth in its business courses. But Hampton does what most HBCUs do, we fix the outside of the student instead of worrying about what is in the student’s mind. To be honest, I believe Hampton’s ban is what we all gear our students to do, make white people feel comfortable. The message that is always sent is “ethic hair” is a bad thing because corporate America doesn’t like it. HBCUs don’t aim to change industries, they aim to turn students into cookie cutter images of what they see. There’s no innovation taking place at HBCUs, whether culturally, economically, or academically. We simply copy the master and hope it works. We’re not setting trends that will set us apart and develop our institutions. Don’t get me wrong, there is drastic measures that need to happen, but simply banning a hair style because it’s a better corporate image isn’t the answer. We need our own corporate environment. If we build businesses, we don’t have to worry about a “corporate image.”

      • Juba Lee

        You hit the nail on the head then. Black youth everywhere need to be taught and encouraged to make their own rules and do things their way. Not immoral or unethical but having to do with their own identity and not, as you say, “cookie cutter”. Education needs to be made relevant to a student’s environment and reality and in doing this it would prepare them to be independent and not a copy of someone else just so they can be “successful”. If this type of teaching started at the secondary levels of education or below I believe you wouldn’t have the apathy for education that now exists in so many of our youth. Surely HBCUs, that are created “for us” should be doing this. “For us” is in quotes, however, because most HBCUs were created by a U.S. government that viewed blacks as inferior or by white philanthropic organizations. That’s where they received their funding and their ideologies. Too often it is the case that their focus is and they teach to make white people or those in power “feel comfortable.”

        This is the sad truth, but in spite of this, HBCUs are vital to our communities. They provide a bridge between education and our communities that would not be there without them. Also, even though there are problems with their ideologies and, of course, infrastructure, many provide so much help to their community in terms of pride and energy. They did this so much more in the recent past. We need to get back to that. This is why you can’t elevate the enrollment standards. Where would those students go? They would fill the jails and the cemeteries more than they already do and, sadly, would make our communities even less tolerable. Terrorized by our own children because they don’t have any choices. Education is so important. They can’t be cut off from it. HBCUs need to devote more think tanks and research to making the public education in their area better. But even before this – they need to reevaluate their educative purposes and start teaching our students how to own and create industries instead of just serving them. Teach them how to change this country and not just make a buck in it.

  • Thoth

    As a graduate of an HBCU, I think it’s time for us to admit to a few things. The sad truth is many HBCU’s don’t have much to offer students in the realm of social development. Most HBCU’s only offer fraternities and sororities that are extremely exclusive and offer little to nothing to the campus (part of this is the lack of freedom given by the school.) Plus a weak, ineffective SGA that’s nothing more than a resume booster for students. This creates an environment were students have nothing to look forward to or up at. So the same damaging behavior cycles through the school. Sadly the answer always seems to be more control over the students by our schools which already have way too much control over its students. The change needs to start by HBCUs raising their admission standards first. Our schools need to weed out those that are not serious about their educational pursuits and our schools need to stop being safe havens for under-achievers in our community and others. Once this happens, our schools need to update policies and allow students the freedom to grow. Welcome new groups and programs to the school. When you look at some PWI’s, many have over 400 students groups and associations versus a small handful at HBCUs. We need to began to address all of the needs of our students and not just the small group that pick fraternities and sororities and SGA.

    The infrastructure at all of these schools need major overhauls but many HBCUs are led by people that are more concerned about the title they hold at the school then what they actually do at the school. Departments are ran by people who are just looking to find the next position (usually at a better paying school) and the attitude radiate through the teaching staff. Students and alumni need to start raising hell over this. A lot of times it feels our schools are being held hostage by people that don’t truly care about the well being of our schools.