“It’s the mecca,” Desiree Parker, a current sophomore, says of life at Howard University. We are catching up over the phone, and while I sit alone on the barren steps of Low after dark, I hear the laughter of friends waft from behind her voice—reaching my ears all the way from D.C. She is definitely not alone when she says, “It’s a place where people of all walks of life can come together to find a salvation on one common ground.” This is the first taste that I get of life at a historically black college or university, and it leads me to wonder what I am missing out on.
Twenty-nine years ago, the Black Students Organization at Columbia asked the same question, setting into motion the plans for an exchange program with Howard. Six years later, Barnard students sought the same opportunity, expressing interest in an exchange program with Spelman. Barnard’s Associate Dean of Studies at the time, Aaron Schneider, had to convince Spelman to see the benefits of its students studying at Barnard.
These programs have now survived almost three decades of existence. Students from Barnard, Spelman, Columbia, and Howard are continuing to get the experience of integration at a different institution, finding a new “home” for a brief while. Above all else, these programs act as explorations into a different way of college life, letting students experience the benefits and limitations of both historically black colleges and universities and predominantly white institutions.
When college acceptances start rolling out, students are often overwhelmed by all the criteria that is supposed to be taken into consideration when deciding: school size, cost, location, program offerings, campus culture, curriculum requirements, housing options, social life, and more. A quick Google search will deliver dozens of factors for consideration to your doorstep. For many black students, the struggle to make a college decision is amplified as they grapple with another difficult question: attend a historically black college or university or a predominantly white institution?
It’s a decision that is significant not only to students and their families, but also to the nation as a whole. Year after year, when students start representing their chosen school with pride—whether that be an HBCU or a PWI—the Internet erupts in contradicting opinions on what is actually the “best” choice to make. The debate over PWIs and HBCUs pins these categories of higher educational institutions against one another and only mounts pressure on each year’s graduating black students to make the “right” choice.
It is here that the domestic exchange programs enter the scene. These programs are not intended to add to the debate, but rather to open university gates to those who seek the experience of life at another institution. They exist to ask: Why make a choice between the two when you could have at least a taste of both?
Tayhlor Williams, a junior at Barnard, approached this exchange with excitement. She applied to Spelman College in high school, but, after not receiving enough financial aid, ultimately chose to attend Barnard. Tamryn Hodge, another junior at Barnard, has a similar story of deciding to enroll at Barnard only after receiving insufficient aid to attend Spelman. These stories fit with a national trend—while historically black colleges and universities are experiencing a resurgence in the number of applications they receive annually, HBCUs across the country have seen a 42 percent decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015, making it more difficult for students to attend. Institutions like Barnard and Columbia are bearing witness to the effects.
For other students, the deciding factor may be something entirely different. Betty Jackson, a junior at Columbia College, spent her youth in a predominantly black community back home in Atlanta. Having grown up with parents and a sibling who each have HBCU experiences, Jackson says she knows she has access to that lifestyle—that unabashed celebration of blackness—whenever she wants it. “My mom used to teach a class at Spelman, and so whenever they’d have an event going on, she’d bring me over, and I’d be able to just go to the campus and see a sense of pride. All the ladies there, you could tell that being there they were happy and secure in the person that they are.”
For Jackson, this lifestyle is home. Going to Columbia means that she is able to experience something new—life at an Ivy League institution. But Jackson didn’t want to completely give up the experience of college life at an HBCU, and so she chose Columbia, a school where she would “still be able to get the HBCU experience in addition to the Ivy experience.”
Through these domestic exchange programs, students are offered the experiences of one or two consecutive semesters at the host institution. To get there, students must meet all of the requirements: a 3.0 GPA or higher, an upperclassman status, and the completion of an application form, including essay prompts. There is a two-level approval process for acceptance: The home institution grants the first “yes,” and the host institution makes the ultimate decision. Dawn Hemphill, the advising dean and Howard domestic exchange coordinator, says that Columbia and Howard attempt to keep their exchange equal, meaning that they will each accept the same number of students per semester.
These domestic exchange programs are very small within our community; less than one percent of Columbia undergraduates study at Howard during any given semester. This semester, one Barnard student is studying at Spelman, and two Spelman students are on Barnard’s campus.
Albeit small in number, the program continues to see student involvement almost three decades after its beginning. What is it, then, that students are getting out of their exchange? Why do these programs matter?
During her first two years at Barnard, Williams struggled to find her place on campus. “I came in not really knowing what I wanted to do, and you feel a lot of pressure being at Barnard,” she explained to me. “I always felt like I didn't belong there.” This sentiment is one that resonates across Broadway, from Barnard to Columbia.
To Williams, the solution was a semester at Spelman. With a bit more than half of her time in Atlanta under her belt, she claims to have been changed for the better. Through the program, she has felt allowed to grow in all capacities, especially socially and academically. “I have a lot more confidence in myself,” she shares over the phone.
She attributes this success to the environment and support that she has found at Spelman, namely by the comfort that accompanies being in a space where the majority of people look like yourself. There’s support in being surrounded by individuals who share a common understanding. According to Williams, this sense of support is fostered on Spelman’s campus: “Just because you feel comfortable, because you're in an environment where at least people understand you, even if you do have different interests.”
This sense of common experience is shared by Jackson at Howard as well. Hanging out in someone’s dorm room this semester, she and her friends were playing games and enjoying each other’s company, when the music playing through the speaker turned gospel. The song brought Jackson back to her childhood: In the backseat of a car on Sunday, Jackson sings along with her family to gospel songs playing on the radio—station V-103—on the way to church. In the Howard dorm room once again, everyone starts singing along. “It really hit me that, ‘I’m at Howard right now,’” she says, “I just really felt a sense of home.”
Soon, she will have to hang up our phone call, so that she can be on time to a club meeting for Howard students from Georgia. I can’t help but notice how her sense of home no longer seems limited to one place.
That’s something that can be hard to find at Columbia or Barnard. The experience of supportive community on all fronts is new for Tayhlor Williams, and she adds that it may “have nothing to do with Barnard itself in reality—but personally I don't feel as supported socially at Barnard.”
Williams does not stand alone in her Barnard experience. According to Kadijah Ndoye, a Spelman graduate of the class of 2016 who spent the fall of her junior year at Barnard, organic friendships were few-and-far-between during her domestic exchange. She recalls running into old acquaintances from her adolescence in dining halls on campus. These minute interactions, ones where the opening line was often, “Hey, we went to middle school together!” shaped the extent of her social experience at Barnard. “I didn’t really feel that same sense of community that I felt at Spelman,” she says. “In my time, I definitely did feel the expense of isolation and belonging as a domestic exchange student.”
But Columbia and Barnard do have other experiences to offer. Having a club meeting at 9 p.m., then going to the library to do homework afterward, is a very “Columbia” experience according to Ameerah de Chabert, who is spending a semester here on domestic exchange from Howard. While the workload can be stressful, her time is largely spent outside the confines of Butler, making the most of Columbia’s resources.
As an example, she expresses how impressed she was with a recent event featuring a vice president at L'Oréal that was recently hosted at Columbia. “I was so shocked, it was so fancy for a school event.”
Chabert says that, to ensure she gets the most out of her experience, she makes an active effort to “get out of the campus bubble,” going to different events in the city each week. Curious as to what I may be missing out on in the place that I now call home, I ask her about the most exciting event she has attended this semester. She describes a Gucci party for the launch of a perfume that she attended. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The next day, I really was like, ‘I’m holding this perfume right now.’ That was crazy.”
Upon arrival at the host school, all four institutions—Barnard, Spelman, Columbia, and Howard—offer the inclusion of domestic exchange students in their first year orientation programs as well as an introduction to the transfer and exchange student communities, which are often merged for programming purposes. Such programs include dinners, group outings, and activities with the focus of bonding the community together. In addition to access to all NSOP opportunities, Hemphill gives me the example of an integrated photo scavenger hunt for the transfer and exchange students at Columbia, which received positive feedback from those who participated. According to Jemima Gedeon, Barnard’s associate dean of studies for student success who oversees the program with Spelman, students also receive advising from the time they are admitted until they return to Spelman. “It's very important that I make sure that they feel supported and answer questions,” she says.
There is little difference in the formal programming for students participating in domestic exchange across these institutions; the difference instead exists in the inherent and distinct sense of community (or lack thereof) at each individual institution.
While Barnard is a women’s college, which implies a shared identity across all students, it also maintains close contact with the Columbia student body. Ndoye explains her naiveté surrounding the Barnumbia community: “I was unaware of the close relationship between Barnard and Columbia. I took classes across both institutions, so I don’t even know if anyone at Barnard may get the whole Barnard experience—just because you can take classes across both institutions.”
Brianna Boggs, a Spelman student who spent a semester in the city of New York, echoes the perspective of her fellow alum in agreeing that her home institution fosters a stronger sense of shared identity. She explains that Spelman felt like sisterhood, and that “Barnard is more like we all happen to be women, and we all happen to be feminist.”
This is not to say that there are not active and energized identity-based student groups on this campus—rather that Barnard and Columbia themselves place less emphasis on any one specific aspect of identity. In contrast, the foundation of historically black colleges and universities is identity. These institutions were established to pioneer the higher education of African Americans, to create a new academic space because they were unwelcome in any other. Chabert has been able to find support on campus in the identity-based student group of BSO. Prior to spending a semester in domestic exchange, she explains, she did not fully understand the need for an active BSO. Her perspective on the role this identity-based group plays has changed since being at Columbia. “I’ve recognized the importance of BSO at schools that are not predominantly black,” she says. “I feel like BSO and getting involved with more black people or meeting other people of other cultures is a great way to find support.”
“There's something so beautiful and something so wonderful that Spelman offers that we just don't,” says Gedeon, explaining that the exchange is affirming for students from Barnard who get to see themselves represented among their peers and professors at Spelman. She adds, “I am all about students growing both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Today, students still flock to HBCUs because they are “safe havens,” in the words of Parker. Having graduated from a high school with a small black population, she expresses that, upon her matriculation at Howard, she had to adjust to building friendships with a large number of people at once. “Because I've been put in this environment, I was able to find people who really truly connected with me a lot more easily,” she claims. I know this to be true, for no reason other than I can still hear them, faint but present, behind her voice.
In 1868, Richard Robert Wright, a son of slaves, responded to a prompt by commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Oliver O. Howard, which had asked for a message to be passed to the people in Northern states: “Tell them we are rising.” This became the mantra of Wright’s life work and an underlying principle in the founding of many HBCUs. Today, the act of rising may not look like it did to Wright. Would it mean occupying the spaces that were created for you, by you? Would it mean occupying those that once sent you away? Or would it mean refusing to choose between these options, and instead having both?
Semester after semester, students take their home colleges and universities up on the offer of domestic exchange, making the choice to not have to choose between HBCU and PWI. As such, the reason why these programs have outlived the turn of the century is irrefutable: Students still show up.
At Barnard and Columbia, there is an Ivy League education, time spent in New York City, and the experience of a predominantly white institution. At Spelman and Howard, there is an education rooted in exploring identity, shared experience, and a community determined to rise above any obstacle. “I just think it's an important program,” Hemphill stresses to me, just before I walk out of her office. At the close of the conversation with Gedeon, she adds that she would have loved to do the exchange herself.
As I listen to the laughter radiating from Parker’s side of the call—the laughter of community, of home, of students still showing up, of choices well-made, and of centuries of rising—I cannot say that I disagree.
Enjoy leafing through our fourth issue!