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I was not a good college student.
I contended with a lot of personal challenges that, looking back on, I am amazed I came through. In the course of four years, one of my favorite aunties passed away, my father transitioned less than a year later, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the year after my dad left, and I even lost my dog. Add riding the extreme highs of meeting my first love, and the deepest heartbreaking despair over the ending of that relationship, and somehow just graduating is still enough for me. I’ll take it.
I look back on all of this with some understanding, that I didn’t have then, of why I struggled so in my 20s. Bearing up was something you just did. However, I was absolutely experiencing trauma and operating in a place of continual emotional dysregulation for years. I didn’t even consider or know therapy was an option, nor was it suggested.
And yet, I consider my college years to be some of the happiest times of my life. I loved attending my HBCU, Historically Black College and University.
Spelman thy name we praise,
Standards and honor raise,
We’ll ever faithful be
May peace with thee abide …
—Excerpt from Spelman College Hymn
I entered Spelman College as an economics major and graduated with an art degree. Finding art and community through one semester of a drawing class changed the trajectory of my life. I loved the process of learning, the intellectual exchange of ideas, the space to create art, engaging with my professors and other students intergenerationally, the time spent just thinking and considering the possibilities of other perspectives in the world. And of course, the parties and HBCU bands — I can’t say that wasn’t a benefit. I had a lot of fun, and probably at times, way too much fun, despite the other turmoil I was dealing with.
At Spelman, there was protocol left from previous generations — we were required to attend weekly chapels, but the college brought in some of the most amazing speakers in the world. I took chapel for granted, I didn’t want to go, most of the time. But to this day, I am still in awe of sitting in the presence of the great Toni Morrison and hearing her talk about her novels, quite a few of which were required readings in my classes.
And I know, “how I got over” — to borrow from the great Mahalia Jackson gospel song — was through my predominately African American professors, who poured into us, sharing their knowledge and intellectual standards that were sprinkled with love, a very different type of social structure, governance system and engagement typical of an HBCU that is difficult to explain. Many of our professors protected us, their Black students, and invited us to their homes for a warm dinner or tea that included more dialogue and opportunities for intellectual engagement outside of the classroom. They treated us like family.
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