In this op-ed, CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield explains the legacy of excellence she encountered while studying at Howard University, and her advice for students considering attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
I knew that I wanted to study journalism. I was looking at colleges all over the country with my mom. And then in that family chat about what our plan for college was, my dad said, “Why are you looking at all these places when Howard University is right down the street?” I said “Well, because Howard University is right down the street.” I wanted to broaden my horizons, go elsewhere, disconnect with home, and have the whole college experience. And my dad told me about all the great people who’ve graduated from Howard — Thurgood Marshall, Reverend Andrew Young. I thought, maybe I’ve been taking Howard for granted possibly because it was right down the street — I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. I went on campus and saw Howard’s communications department, and at that point really, there was no looking back. There was something that felt so incredibly comfortable about being on campus. I really didn't know what the experience was going to be, but it just felt right.
Really, it was my dad’s idea and it became my wish. Once I got a taste of what Howard was, looking at it with new eyes, I had made up my mind: This was where I wanted to go.
Howard University's Founders Library
Little did I know that this would be an experience where I would grow in so many ways. Once I became a freshman, I lived on campus in the all-women’s dormitory on the quad. I saw what it was to pick my own classes. I really learned a level of independence I wasn't sure how to prepare for. It just all happened. I would go on to develop a confidence I never had before. I developed a sense of comfort I didn’t know I was missing by simply being on this historically Black college campus, by interacting with people who were from all walks of life.
I mean, I had already been a global child. I was born in Kenya, and I lived abroad for a good period of time before Washington D.C. became home. Being with people of all walks of life has always been easy for me. But there was something else about being in an environment where what we all share is a pursuit for excellence. We all want to be our best. While there was plenty of competition — a lot of folks came to Howard with a fantastic background and incredible smarts — but instead of being in competition with one another, we had the camaraderie of being challenged by one another. Everybody was trying to be their best.
What an experience to be in a classroom where your professor was a trailblazer. Sam Yette was one of my first journalism professors, and he was a photographer and reporter who made an incredible name for himself during the Civil Rights Movement. He was someone I would learn from, who would ultimately challenge me as a budding journalist to leave my comfort zone and not pick the beat that I thought would be most comfortable. Instead, I picked the beat I was most unfamiliar with, and that would make me a better journalist. It was an environment that encouraged us, especially as journalists, to leave campus — we were in the news capital of the world. We were told, you leave campus and you find your way. I did six internships in four years at Howard University, and I got nothing but encouragement from my professors and colleagues. I developed into a woman with a lot of tenacity, an eagerness to be my best, and learned to not look at closed doors as barriers, but if anything, as real challenges.
In a strange way, difficult things are what sometimes allow you to see what your character is, and how you can rise above these barriers.
This is what my entire experience was like. I don’t know what it’s like to be at another HBCU, but it was the right connection, the right combination, and the right time and place in my life where I was malleable enough to be shaped in this way.
I have the university as a reference point throughout my entire career. I’m inspired by all those trailblazers who made their mark at Howard University and continue to make a mark in their various industries, whether it’s literature, arts, medicine, law. I mean, what a roster of people. But look at some of the more recent alumni: Chadwick Boseman. Taraji P. Henson. Kamala Harris. People who are giants in public service and in politics have made their mark with Howard University. It's an extraordinary place of nurture, a shaping of talent.
Whether a student wants to further their education at an HBCU or at any other campus, their focus has to be on allowing themselves to leave their comfort zone. When you do that, you’re opening yourself to possibilities, and you’re allowing yourself to be challenged in ways that you can’t imagine. You can have a general idea of what you want your path to be, but you can’t be so myopic on that path that you can’t pay attention to the opportunities that come your way. Even if it’s an error you make, or the most challenging assignment you’ve ever gotten, or maybe it’s the hardship of being able to get tuition paid. In a strange way, difficult things are what sometimes allow you to see what your character is, and how you can rise above these barriers.
That might happen at an HBCU, it might not. The beautiful thing, at least in my experience at Howard, is to find out you have so much support in those moments where your character is defined, but you have to allow yourself to go to your professor, or confide in a fellow student. You might find that you are far stronger than you ever knew you were. You might find that you’re smarter than you ever thought you were. It’s incumbent upon you to allow yourself to shine, to be brilliant.
As told to Melanie Mignucci
This piece has been edited and condensed for clarity.