College is a challenging and formative time. 

Students must navigate heavy coursework, as well as demands outside the classroom — from leadership roles at student organizations to new relationships, and life away from home. For students at historically Black colleges and universities, the experience is particularly poignant, as they are surrounded by many peers and professors who look like them.

We talked to recent graduates about what they learned during their time at an HBCU. For many, the growth didn’t just come in the classroom — it started within. 

“I’ve learned that a degree, and attendance at any institution, is a tool for the ends that one may be pursuing in life. A college, Black or not, may mold you in some ways, but you must have thorough convictions of your own,” says Solomon Brooks, a rising senior at Howard University.

Students’ responses — in their own words — have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Justus Jenkins

Claflin University

The biggest lesson I have taken away from my time at my HBCU is knowing when to take a step back. Oftentimes at our schools, we join student leadership, and we are so ready and eager to serve that we overextend ourselves without even knowing it. 

Justus Jenkins

Four years of uninterrupted student leadership took its toll on me.

When you’re always leading, you don’t always have time to relax and live. It got to a point where I just had to step down from what I had going on and focus solely on myself and my next steps. Let me tell you, that was the absolute best decision I’ve ever made in college.

Those last few months I spent in college with no campus obligations were honestly some of the best months I’ve had in college. I would tell anyone to know when to put yourself first!

I learned that my own peace and happiness must come first. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to make sacrifices, but your peace and happiness should never be up for offer in exchange for any person, place, or thing. I’ve learned that you can always check to know if you’re where you’re meant to be, ‘cause you’ll be able to find happiness and peace within it. 

— Tyuanna Williams

I learned that my own peace and happiness must come first.

Justus Jenkins

Ti’ja Taylor

Southern University and A&M College

Ti’ja Taylor

People are always watching you, and that includes your professors, deans, and peers. You all are embarking on a journey, whether it be one semester or multiple. When I learned that, I began to look at my HBCU as more of a family, as opposed to just an institution.

With God on my side — and a planner — I was able to achieve everything I was going after. I earned a scholarship from the Office of Student Media and have found a passion for journalism that I appreciate, too. My time as editor-in-chief for a campus magazine is a testament to my hard work and God’s favor. 

In my next chapter, I still live with that same mindset. I take that scripture and the lessons I’ve learned with me daily as I go to work and as I begin to create a legacy for myself. By faith and motivation, I can always overcome.

— Brittany Patterson 


Jaliah Robinson

Jaliah Robinson

Claflin University

My biggest personal success was the start of my loc journey, because it signified me finally being comfortable with my hair in society. 

I never showed my natural hair, always kept it in braids or faux locs. It was my only and biggest insecurity, but since attending an HBCU, I’ve grown more comfortable in myself and will never shield my hair again.

In my next chapter, I’ll continue to be open to new opportunities and navigate this new era with confidence. 

— Tyuanna Williams

My personal biggest success was the start of my loc journey.

Jaliah Robinson

Gerald Jones III

Xavier University of Louisiana

Gerald Jones III

The HBCU experience has helped me understand that we can be proud to embrace our culture as Black people. Having that comfortability moving forward instilled confidence in me to be a leader in the real world.

As a Black man, there’s not many spaces where we can speak about our experiences, mental health, and find resources to get better. But there’s an on-campus organization for this called Collegiate 100. They focus on Black men’s education and emotional well-being.

Collegiate 100 gave me a safe space to embrace my culture and experiences and progress towards success. Seeing other Black men who wanted to be successful wouldn’t be as accessible at a white institution, and that’s why it’s important to have these kinds of spaces.

— Skylar Stephens


Jamee McAdoo

Jamee McAdoo

Jackson State University

Coming from out of state [Little Rock], my biggest fear going to Jackson State University was not making a name for myself. One of the earliest lessons I learned while attending JSU was that if you always show up as your authentic self, the blessings and opportunities will find you. And they did!

I got connected with so many like-minded individuals, as well as some organizations that are now very near and dear to my heart.

JSU pushed me in the direction of shooting for the stars and truly thinking big. As I’m navigating this new phase of my life post-graduation, I will always make sure to remind myself that there is absolutely no limit to greatness.

Alivia Welch

I will always make sure to remind myself that there is absolutely no limit to greatness.

Jamee McAdoo

Geiana Grimes

South Carolina State University

Geiana Grimes

Although an HBCU wasn’t my first choice, I am so glad that I went to one. It made me realize who I am as a person. Going to an HBCU made me a stronger person, more outgoing. I suddenly wasn’t that shy girl who was scared to be herself anymore.

During college, I definitely learned that I am way stronger than I ever thought. The schoolwork, being dead broke, depression, and still trying to manage a social life made me understand how strong I am. I will always fight out of whatever deep hole I am in.

I can do whatever I put my mind to. I will take that into my next chapter by just remaining true to who I am now. And I will forever be so grateful to my HBCU for making me into the person I am today.

— Tyuanna Williams


Mahogany Koontz

Xavier University of Louisiana

Mahogany Koontz

I remember this one time, I had a paper that I had been dreading to do for weeks. I put off working on it until the day that it was due. I was so exhausted and had an exam to study for, but because I chose to procrastinate, I didn’t get a chance to study for my exam.

Being a student at Xavier has taught me that procrastination is never the best choice. It’s also a lesson that I will take into the real world with me.

This lesson taught me to have fun and enjoy the little things of my college experience, but also to get my work done.

Xavier gave me the gift of family, and that’s another thing that I will hold with me forever. I truly thank my HBCU for making me into the person that I am today.

— Skylar Stephens

Jasper Smith contributed reporting.

Welch, Patterson, Stephens, Smith, and Williams are inaugural fellows in the
HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus. Support the program here.

This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalBNews

Skylar is a sophomore at Xavier University of Louisiana majoring in mass communication.

Alivia is a senior journalism and media studies major at Jackson State University.

Brittany is a senior majoring in mass communications at Southern University and A&M College.

Tyuanna is a junior majoring in mass communications at Claflin University.