(L-R) President of Texas Southern University, Dr. Lesia L. Crumpton-Young, Amegy Chief Executive Officer Steve Stephens, President of Prairie View A&M University Dr. Ruth J. Simmons

It was my senior year of high school.

I sat with my academic advisor going over college options before starting the application process.

I had the grades, I was very involved in school and extracurricular activities, and I was ready to start the next phase of my academic career. I attended a very diverse high school in Massachusetts and wanted the same experience once I graduated.

I remember going to several career day events and didn’t come across one HBCU recruiter or booth with information about the schools and what they offer. So, I felt the best decision would be to choose the predominantly white institutions (PWI) in-state schools.

My thought process at the time was that Massachusetts had some of the best schools in the nation. The mecca for college and universities, with plenty of resources and opportunities. Why not stay right?

And even though my mother graduated from Texas Southern University in the 80s, I’d always wondered why she didn’t nudge me to also explore HBCUs as an option, even though she enjoyed her experience there.

Fast forward, after earning two degrees and a few newsrooms later, I ended up in Houston with the Defender Network sitting on stage with two dynamic and influential Black women leading Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University.

The Defender Network hosted its new signature event, the “HBCU Presidents Classic,” celebrating the accomplishments of the two institutions. As the event moderator, this was my chance to learn first-hand about the HBCU culture, the challenges, the triumphs, and future goals.

I’ve visited both campuses and have been able to connect with students and faculty throughout my time in Houston. There is an immediate sense of pride in identity and community service. I felt at home. I didn’t feel like “the only one” in spaces like I did in college. There was one time when I felt a slight case of FOMO (fear of missing out) whenever homecoming time rolled around, wishing I attended an HBCU for the experience.

There is often a debate about HBCUs and PWIs and whether the conversation is worth having. I posed a question to both presidents about the value of an HBCU today, and the responses stuck with me.

Dr. Lesia L. Crumpton-Young:

“I have spent 30 years in higher education. Most of my time in higher education has not been spent at an HBCU. Since being at an HBCU is the only time I have been asked what is the value of an HBCU. We do not question the value of a higher education! Our value is equal to if not greater than higher education.”

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons:

“When I first came to Prairie View, it annoyed me greatly. I retired from my position at an Ivy League university and the degree of which people were appalled that I had now decided to come to Prairie View was appalling to me. I learned early on that the question would always be the first one. Can you compare Brown University and Prairie View? Can you talk about the differences between your experiences at Smith or Princeton and Brown and Prairie View? I learned off the bat to say before anything started ‘I want you all to know that I rule utterly out of order that question. You may not pose it to me, because I will not answer a question that asks anything like that.’ Embedded in that question is ‘tell us how awful it must be for you.’

I happened to see reason in both of their perspectives. This discussion is worth having. Many people don’t know what an HBCU is shockingly enough, and then some still think the world is more open-minded and there isn’t a need for such institutions.

Speaking to these two leaders has taught me how life-changing, enlightening, and incomparable HBCUs are. Just because folks like me attended a PWI doesn’t make me superior to any Black person who didn’t attend, and vice versa.

Regardless of the misconceptions about HBCUs, we are all young Black professionals who had to sit in class, take a course, study, pass exams, graduate, and figure out life.

No matter where you earned your degree, what matters is what you do with it and how you can lift others while you climb. 

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...