HBCU Relevance is Clear Everywhere. So Why Is It So Difficult to Sell?

The United States Air Force's Judge Advocate General Program (JAG) annually admits and trains some of the nation's top legal talent for military service. Thousands of applicants nationwide seek the opportunity, but ultimately yields about 100 admits for basic training and commissioning in active duty or air reserve.

Last April, 52 new JAG officers entered service through the annual training program. Of the 10 African Americans selected for the cohort and the three black men accepted, two are graduates of historically black colleges and universities.

Carnell Hicks and Alex Perkins, graduates of North Carolina Central University's School of Law and Hampton University, respectively, were commissioned as 1st Lieutenants on March 23 and last week, approved for promotion as captains. While HBCUs have a long and ongoing history of military excellence, Hicks and Perkins show that black colleges make contributions to US military excellence, even beyond classic ROTC training.

For Hicks, acceptance into the JAG program was a matter of continuing the family business as much as it was a commitment to personal excellence. His father and wife (also an NCCU Law alumna) are former and current Air Force attorneys.

"The biggest thing NCCU Law gave me, my degree aside, was a strong sense of community," says Hicks. "So whenever I'm out in my field I always look at my fellow minorities like bridges and not competition. Additionally, going there showed me there's no singular path to success."

Perkins, who practiced as an attorney and law school admissions recruiter before enlisting, said that his Hampton education was a blend of building self-assuredness and knowledge base.

"Hampton University gave me the ability to walk into any room, no matter what the skill level, with the confidence of a CEO," he says. "I was already younger than most entering HU, and as a result of graduating early, I started law school at 21. I've spent most of my adult life with people who are older, have more experience, or who are just at the top of their games. Hampton taught me to navigate these waters by thinking critically, absorbing and learning, and through maintaining a balance of confidence and humility. It's allowed me to constantly learn and to hone my craft."

Two HBCU graduates being selected for an elite selection process for the nation's best attorneys shouldn't be shocking to many of us who have been a part of the HBCU experience. And their achievement isn't foreign to the dozens of faculty, administrators, and staff at these schools who work so hard to share these stories.

But too often, they are lost on the prospective students and donors who yearn to hear more of these individual accomplishments and what they mean to the HBCUs which produce them. When we discuss what makes HBCUs great, we are intimately attached to the names, faces and stories from generations ago, never realizing that the inspiration those stories created for millions, inspired thousands to follow in their footsteps today – even to HBCU campuses.

We no longer need to lift black excellence up as a weapon against overt discrimination and lawful separatism, but showcasing the value of HBCU professional training and social progress is more important today than it has ever been. Hicks and Perkins, and thousands of graduates just like them, disrupt bad social notions of HBCU impact, or the perceived lack thereof. The programs which trained them, and the culture which helped to shape them, is partially responsible for that success. We should find a way to describe it beyond "it's an experience," or "a best-kept secret."

There has to be a way the story can be told where the silent reference isn't "go to an HBCU out of racial allegiance" or "invest in schools which invested in us when others wouldn't." That story isn't told with words like 'heritage, tradition or history,' but with a nod towards the contemporary value of higher education – the promise of employment, wealth, influence and social impact.

Hicks and Perkins could one day be judges, on a track for federal appointments or even the Supreme Court. And if we can recognize that potential today, it could expand the range on how we make these schools appealing to a wider range of applicants or supporters. Because as much as we need Hicks and Perkins today to be role models of HBCU excellence, we'll need more of them in the years to come to ensure HBCU existence.

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