Black and Carefree: How HBCUs bolster mental health

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In the spring of 2004, as I walked across the vast expanse of Duke University’s great lawn, I observed the undergraduates huddled together. Some were studying, while others lay on the grass tanning. As we moved across the campus, Lauren, my guide for the Black student weekend, pointed out important buildings and monuments. When it was time to attend an afternoon class, she left me in her dorm room, which was spacious and beautiful.

A few hours later, Lauren returned with a group of girls, all eager to tell me about the various facets of student life. As things typically go with young women, the conversation eventually shifted to dating. Most of the girls had been single their entire undergraduate tenure, unable to reference any romantic dalliances. The words of one junior have stayed with me over the years, she said: “…most of the Black guys are athletes who only date white girls; the Black guys who do like Black girls, date everyone at the same time.”

By the time I returned to Brooklyn, I knew that this prestigious university wasn’t the place for me. I didn’t care about going to school with the children of Fortune 500 CEOs. I was indifferent to the illustrious alum, whose names were on the facades of buildings. I didn’t need the world class library and access to amenities, only a NCAA Division 1 school could provide. I believed that despite the diversity and inclusion initiatives, I would still be an ‘other’ among my white peers. I was smart and more importantly, I was a disciplined student, who could learn anywhere.

Shortly after my visit to Duke, I went to Emory University, for another prospective Black student weekend. It was a great experience, but once again, I knew it wasn’t a match. A few weeks later, I visited Spelman College, only a few miles away from Emory; but within hours I knew I was home. I was paired with Eni, an impressive freshman from the Honors’ Program, who earlier that day, had chaired a summit on international women’s issues.

Fast forward to the evening, and we were sneaking off campus to attend an Omega Psi Phi fraternity party. Here I was, in the company of exceptional young women, who were pursuing their academic studies, yet were leading equally exciting personal lives. There was an ease to their manner. They just were. They were being nurtured by their environment, unlike what I perceived at the PWIs Black student weekends, where the students worked to fit into an imposing structure.

Now years later, as a mental health professional, I believe that attending a historically black college was one of the best mental health decisions I’ve ever made. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to compare my experiences to those of friends, who attended predominantly white institutions. Their time in college was equally rewarding; yet, I believe there is a sort of an ‘awakening and mental healing’, that can only be found in the microcosms of HBCUs.

Coming from NYC, I thought that I had met every version of a Black person there could be: Caribbean, African, Latinx, and African American. However, attending a HBCU in the South, quickly unraveled what I had regarded as gospel. My peers were from the Midwest; Gulf Coast; DC Metro; Cali and overseas. There was the girl from Philly with a thick accent who was a math genius. There were the ‘hood guys’ from Morehouse, tying their durags too tightly and cursing way too much, who later revealed they had attended private day schools in New England. There were the queer girls, who were redefining gender politics off campus. In this space, there was less code switching and self monitoring, since there was no need to worry about the white gaze. We weren’t tiny islands in a vast ocean of whiteness, bound together by our blackness; we were individuals with varying talents and abilities.

When I was 14, I was awarded a scholarship to study the basics of pharmacology in Dublin, Ireland for a summer. My scheduled departure date would cause me to miss a week of school. Despite my pleas, my high school guidance counselor concocted some absurd reason why she could not give permission for me to go. Luckily, my mother worked out a solution to the guidance counselor’s liking and a few weeks later I was on my way to Dublin. My high school years were riddled with incidents of being thwarted, doubted and not given the same chances as my Caucasian and Asian peers.

In college, everything changed. For the first time in years, I had teachers who wanted me to succeed and were invested in my success. Some were seemingly difficult and impossible in their demands. In retrospect, I realize that the rigorous coursework was to prepare students for an unfair world. Between tests and essays, there was always time set aside for nurturing our minds and building confidence in our scholastic abilities. Likewise, as our professors pushed us, so did our peers. We were constantly surrounded by excellence, which further encouraged us to strive for more.

Many make the case that attending an HBCU is not the real world. It isn’t. As Black people, for the rest of our lives, we will live in a generally hostile white supremacist society. I’m grateful for those four years of reprieve, from the harrowing reality of what it means to exist as a Black woman in the American society. I believe that Black youths, especially Black women, should be given the opportunity to mature in an environment that wants what’s best for them. At that sensitive phase of life, one should feel invincible, beautiful, adored, and just simply, important.

When I visited Duke, Lauren and her cohorts described themselves, in so many words, as being at the bottom of the dating totem pole. For me, I knew that college was not just about attending class, but also about creating memories, developing lifelong friendships and about exploring one’s sexuality. During college, I met young men from all over the world, and dealt with crushes, conquests, brief relationships and unrequited affections. By the time I graduated, I had had experiences, which helped me to mature into an adult woman.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cancellation of SpelHouse Homecoming 2020, one can only reminisce. I know that my college experience wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. There are flaws at every institution and kinks in every bureaucratic structure. However, I am forever grateful that I experienced unadulterated “Black Girl Joy” in the absence of otherism, at such a young age. At 17, I believe that I made one of the best choices for my mental health and personal well being, by choosing to spend those seminal years at Spelman College.

Read more at https://www.amtaarwellness.com/

A psychiatrist writing about mental health issues, through a black female lens. www.amtaarwellness.com