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Chasing a Sense of Belonging, Choosing an HBCU

Chasing a Sense of Belonging, Choosing an HBCU (Samaiyah Lewis will attend a historically black college this fall. (Photo credit: Kai Wright))
Samaiyah Lewis will attend a historically black college this fall. (Photo credit: Kai Wright)

Someone once asked me about the moment when I realized I was black.

I mean, I always knew to fill in the bubble for African American whenever I took a survey. But as a kid, I never thought too hard about my blackness. Fast-forward to now, I’ve decided I want the sense of belonging that will come from attending one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

It really wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I became more aware that I am a black girl—and what that means. Transitioning from my small, liberal elementary school to a college prep high school in downtown Chicago is what initiated my awareness.

In high school, I entered a new world of nearly 1,500 students who came from families who harbored feelings and opinions I had not been exposed to before. In my English class freshman year, there were three African American students in a class of 30. This was not unusual to me, because even though I have resided on the south side my entire life, I’ve always attended schools on the north side, where there aren’t many black and brown students. However, this was the first time my classmates seemed to view me as the sole representative of my race, at any given moment. I remember being called on to read the poems of Langston Hughes because I mastered the pronunciations of his colloquial euphemisms. My classmates asked if I shared the cultural practices represented in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” One time, I was singled out to answer what feminism means to black women.

The expectation that I would educate my white peers and provide the “common black perspective” — on demand — became a chore and signaled that too many of my classmates, I was ‘the token black girl.’ I wondered if my friends at predominantly black high schools held these responsibilities in their classrooms. Probably not.

Then, earlier this year, I was sitting in the hall and a teacher, who was white and male, walked up to my circle of friends and me. All of us are black. He asked if we knew the details of an upcoming Black Student Union event at our school. When we all replied we didn’t know the exact details, he looked at us in shock and said, “Well, people have been asking me, and I’m white–I don’t know. I thought you guys would.” We let out uncomfortable giggles and he shrugged off, looking annoyed.

It was that moment in the hallway that got me thinking it was finally time for me to break from the predominantly white institutions I have gone to since kindergarten. Having to enter and exit different worlds on a daily basis has taught me to relate to and empathize with others who are different from me, and that’s a good thing. But in schools I’ve attended, I have rarely been afforded the opportunity to identify with people like myself.

So when it came time to apply for college, I checked more and more HBCUs on my common app. I was admitted to five of them.

My heart told me to pick Howard University. When I visited, it was everything my godmother, a Howard alum, said it would be. When I saw a classroom filled with black medical students, I felt inspired. It’s my dream to become a psychologist, and seeing the Howard students so focused on their goals made me believe I can accomplish mine too.

But Clark Atlanta University gave me a full ride. 

I chose Clark Atlanta. Graduating with no debt is going to be wonderful, and I can also take classes at nearby Morehouse and Spelman. For the first time, I’ll get to attend an institution that has a variety of courses and extracurricular activities tailored specifically for my educational advancement, as an African-American.

I will no longer have to feel like a visitor or a representative sent from elsewhere. I get to belong to a community.

This is the full version of Samaiyah’s essay, which appears in shorter form as part of Youth Radio’s partnership with the New York Times Race/Related.

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