Lee Mbiyu left his home country of Kenya at the age of 10 and moved to the United States, where he ended up in Minnesota. In Minnesota schools, he found himself the butt of racist jokes, including name-calling and comments about not being able to see him in the dark.

When it was time to decide on college, he considered how stark of a change he wanted given his experiences with microaggressions in the Midwest. He landed at Morehouse College, a place that he feels accepts and welcomes him.

Lee Mbiyu is a Kenyan-American who is a sophomore at Morehouse College. (Courtesy of Lee Mbiyu.)

“Being in a predominantly Black environment was one of the healthiest things I could do for myself at the time,” Mbiyu said. “Living in a predominantly white state after living in Kenya was preventing me from learning how to live life as a Black man in America,” Mbiyu said.

Mbiyu is among 2.1 million sub-Saharan Africans who live in the United States. Many of them find historically Black colleges and universities as a sanctuary of sorts as they learn the intricacies of being Black in America.

Oluwaseun Kolade, a junior at Howard University, came to America from Nigeria at 16 years old. Her transition to the U.S. was a difficult one, since not seeing people who look like her every day was new.

Oluwaseun Kolade is Nigerian who is a Junior at Howard University. (Courtesy of Oluwaseun Kolade)

“I feel like I would be more comfortable around people that look like me or share the same or similar struggles as me,” Kolade said. “That was one major reason why I applied to Howard.”

One major change involved adjusting to more activity at night in the United States. 

“It was a pretty big shift honestly,” Kolade said. “My family and I were homebodies, so I used to stay home like, a lot. So I wasn’t used to staying outside or going outside, and everything was really big.”

HBCUs don’t only offer familiar faces. The NBA x HBCU Fellowship and the McKinsey HBCU Consulting League are among the networking opportunities that entice foreign students.

“I believe the many networking opportunities that HBCUs offer can advance your career,” said Raman Enigbokan, a sophomore at Morehouse College. “Coming to Morehouse has already brought me side careers that I never even considered.”

Enigbokan came to the United States from Nigeria with his parents, who placed him in a Catholic school where he felt like an outsider. Adjusting to Morehouse became easier.

“There is a diaspora between Africans and African American people but I never indulged in that myself,” said Enigbokan. “So coming here, I didn’t selectively pick Africans to be friends with. The majority of my friends tend to be African Americans.”

African students relish the chance to meet other students like themselves on these campuses. 

“Making friends is something that I can do easily and making those genuine connections with my brothers is important to me,” Enigbokan said. “So having those people alongside me on my journey throughout college is a joy in itself.”

HBCUs are appealing to African students on academic merits, too. Schools like Spelman College ranked within the top 40 national liberal arts colleges and Howard ranked among some of the best medical schools in the country.

“For most Nigerians, the idea of going to an Ivy League is the dream but the reality is, that’s just not possible for a good amount of people,” said Kolade. “I feel like an HBCU is still a prestigious school but it doesn’t need to have the pressure of an Ivy League. So I know that I can go to a good school of good standing, and get a good degree.”

Yacob Astatke is the vice president of International Affairs at Morgan State University. He came to the U.S. after leaving Ethiopia for college, where he attended Morgan State decades ago. 

“When I was choosing an American school, I did not know what an HBCU was but when I saw Morgan and Howard, I knew I wanted to go to one of those schools because I saw other Black faces,” Astatke said. “Morgan offered a lot of money and Morgan’s engineering program was the only Black program in Maryland at the time so it became a no-brainer.”

Knowing full well the struggle of transitioning to the U.S., he and his department make sure African students are comfortable.

“We have programs such as One Trybe, which bring together domestic and international students every month and have them participate in activities with one another to help international students fit in and the domestic students to understand the cultural differences with international students,” he said. 

Astatke said his job has changed over the years because of geopolitical concerns and other issues outside of his control. The pandemic in particular complicated his duties.

“When COVID hit us, many of our students had issues getting their visas,” Astatke said. “The embassies for African students were backed up a bunch with wait times up to two years and it greatly affected the transition and education for our students.”

Though HBCUs’ histories might not be related to African/International students, Mbiyu still sees the value in them as part of the higher education sector.

 “I believe the histories are significant to international Black students & this is because Black international students are aware of how important their history is and in return try and understand the history of the HBCUs,” said Mbiyu.

Niles Garrison is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.

Niles a sophomore at Morehouse College majoring in journalism.