The Black college student experience: PWIs vs HBCUs

Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) can affect the way Black students interact with their school and academic community.

The US Department of Education defines a PWI as a university that has 50% or more enrollment from White students but it is also used to refer to any University that is deemed “historically white”. The US Department of Education defines an HBCU as “[…] any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency […].”

The choice between an HBCU or PWI is not an easy one. Some students must prioritize funding over experience when applying to college. A brief by the American Council on Education found that HBCUs endowments are behind PWIs by 70%. See more:
ACE Brief Illustrates HBCU Funding Inequalities

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Ashley Hinton, a first year student in the psychology program at SIU, said although she came to SIU because it was in-state and affordable, the atmosphere of attending a PWI can make Black students feel uncomfortable.

“You have to pass certain cities that used to be sundown towns or certain things where you just feel like ‘Oh, am I going to be profiled?,” Hinton said.

Black students are not unwarranted in feeling uneasy about coming down to Carbondale, given its history of racial discrimination, Hinton said.

Hinton said the administration has a misconception that a majority of Black students are underprivileged.

“There are some Black people who are wealthy. There are some Black people who are not underprivileged, but […]that is what we were labeled as when we are seen walking around campus.”

Hinton said the university labeling Black students as underprivileged falsely paints them as
always needing help, and always asking for a handout.

Hinton said she has to prove herself day in and day out in class.

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“I would say walking into classrooms where there are times I feel like I have to prove myself more, even though I’m an exceptional student.” Hinton said.

Hinton said this constant pressure to prove herself in class has taken a toll on her mental health. It has caused her to be more conscious of her participation in class in order to prove herself as a good student, she said.

Students like Feyi Arowolo, a second year student in the communications program at Southern Illinois University (SIU), said she came to SIU because of the opportunities SIU offers to students.

Arowolo said she considered going to an HBCU at one point because of the sense of community they have.

“I see the different events that some HBCUs do, [.] for example, with Black History Month, they have [events] such as a Black talent show, a cookout, [and they have] Black [activities] all around campus and many more. Because this is a PWI we really can’t do it as we want to,” Arowolo said.

Arowolo said while SIU does promote itself as being diverse when it comes to the Black students they don’t feel they can celebrate their culture to its fullest extent like they would be able to at an HBCU.

Cheyenne Lillard is a third year student at SIU. Lillard said she came to SIU because they offered her the most money when she graduated from her community college. Lillard is spearheading a Black majorette RSO with her friend to celebrate a black dance and culture. Lillard said her new Black majorette team will have a good starting point thanks to other Black RSOs who paved the way like Dynasty Dance who have built a good reputation within the Black population at SIU.

“We are the enchanting Diamond Majorette team and pretty soon we will be having tryouts,” Lillard said.

Lillard said the RSO is particularly for Black girls and whoever else can dance but wants to dance specifically majorette style.

It is important to have RSOs on campus that celebrate Blackness because of the various racialized experiences Black students face at a PWI.

Lillard said she heard several non- Black students at SIU using the N word and experienced people touching her hair without permission and asking if her hair was real.

“People were saying it, and it was not people that I necessarily know or anything like that, but they were saying it at parties, things like that. As if it was a casual word to say or something that was okay to say,” Lillard said.

Lillard said those racial instances were not the only ones she experienced. She said in 2020 her sister and friends had notes slid under their dorm room door at Schneider Hall saying, “The apes are coming,” and students made ape noises outside of the dorm rooms.

After the incident, the administration sent out an email saying they could not do anything because they did not catch them on camera.

“[SIU said] they didn’t see it on camera, and I’m just like, ‘wow, y’all can catch everything else, […] but you just happen to not see this on the camera?’,” Lillard said.

Charah McKinzie is the program coordinator for the Black Resource Center. McKinzie said not having the proper resources for Black students can lead them to feeling isolated in their own university.

“There are just certain things that a Black student needs and one of those things include community. What it means to see a professor that looks like me, or that looks like you,” Mckinzie said.

According to McKinzie Black students who attend a PWI need to be able to feel that they have that sense of community around them.

Alvin Boss is a fourth year student at Morehouse college, a HBCU in Atlanta, Ga. He said he decided to go to an HBCU because of the sense of unity they offered.

“I saw the brotherhood and the closeness that the school has to offer to students, how upperclassmen will actively help younger classmates,” Boss said. “[They] make sure they got their classes set, make sure they’re involved on campus, make sure they are there and they have the tools needed to get the best out of Morehouse.”

Boss said having upperclassmen actively helping you make sure you get to class and get involved is what makes HBCUs like Morehouse welcoming. He said for students who attend a PWI it can feel as though you have to find your group of Black people to hangout with.

“I feel like Black people have to always be like the one Black person. They always have to make Black groups for something like ‘Black people that like sports’ or ‘Black people that like comic books’ [at] PWIs you have to find your Black group.”

Boss said with HBCUs you do not have to limit yourself to just being a Black person you can just be yourself.

Jamecia Laws, a third year law student who attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said HBCUs offer a wide range of scholarships.

“There are specific programs, such as scholarship programs and internship programs, that are marketed and available only for HBCU students. So, if you were to be within a PWI you would possibly not qualify for those opportunities,” Laws said.

Laws said because there are more Black students at HBCUs, Black fraternities and sororities are more prevalent there.

“We had all of the Divine Nine organizations whereas at some PWI there might not be enough students on campus to fulfill that organization. Those Divine Nine organizations definitely play a large part in HBCU culture,” Laws said.

The Divine Nine are historically black Greek organizations made up of five fraternities and four sororities. The Divine Nine were formed as a way to give African Americans a chance to be a part of Greek life because of their exclusion from the White fraternities and sororities. SIU has a few of the Divine Nine including Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Beta Sigma, Iota Phi Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Sigma Gamma Rho.

Lauren Evans, a second year, and Cameryn Batiste, a third year student, who both attend Xavier University of Louisiana, said HBCUs allow you to connect with more people who share similar experiences with you.

Evans said having that sense of community takes more of an edge off while going to college. Batiste said having Black teachers makes Black students want to do better in class.

“[You] can tell that they want you to strive and they want you to be successful regardless of the circumstance, and they’re always willing to be understanding of whatever you’re going through,” Batiste said.

Batiste said professors at HBCUs have a better understanding of what you might be going through and will work with you more.

Batiste said at PWIs it feels as though Black students have to talk to each other. Whereas at HBCUs it is more natural.

“Sometimes at PWIs it’s just like a random girl going up to you saying, ‘Yes, Queen. Oh my gosh, you look amazing,’” Batiste said. “And, I mean, it’s okay, but it’s kind of awkward to an extent and here it’s just like, ‘Hey, girl, I like your hair. It looks really good.’ […] It just feels better. It’s genuine.”

Evans said it is easier to find Black people to help you do your hair and help you with other things.

“Things like getting your hair done, or getting your lashes on your nails done. A lot of things that are important to the African-American community,” Evans said. “When you’re at a HBCU there are so many people who know how to do things that you may not know how to do or can do your hair for you.”

Evans said having this easy access to people who know what to do with your hair or any other needs you might have is comforting.

McKinzie said the Black Resource Center wants to meet the needs of Black students on the SIU campus. The resource center offers Black students help with renting textbooks, finding scholarships and encouraging them to embrace themselves and their culture.

“We provide that space right at the Black Resource Center [where] we celebrate the various expressions of blackness. That’s important. It’s important for students to know that they can talk about whatever is going on in their classes. They can just be. There’s no false pretenses, there’s no one judging them. There’s no one seeking anything but let’s just celebrate them for who they are,” McKinzie said.

McKinzie said giving students a space to be themselves will allow them to thrive and feel like they do not have to hide who they are.

McKinzie said the center offers workshops on self advocacy for Black students. Self advocacy is important because as students come to campus it takes some time to figure out exactly what their wants and needs are and how to use the correct language to ask for them to be met she said.

McKinzie encourages Black students to be vocal and advocate for what they need on their campus.

“We always are looking for volunteers to help out with some of the events that we promote. I also like to get feedback from students,” McKinzie said. “Is there some programming or certain things that students want to see? I let them know hey, just let me know and let’s find out what we need to do to get it going.”

Assistant to the Editor Janiyah Gaston and Editor in Chief Oreoluwa Ojewuyi can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] To stay up to date with all your Southern Illinois news follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Lillard and Batiste.

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