Historically black colleges have a deep cultural history, and students want to be a part of it.

Kimberley Edelin’s family has a legacy of attending historically black colleges and universities.

Her father and uncle went to Morehouse College, her sister and aunts went to Spelman College, her mom went to Howard University and her grandma went to Fisk University.

All her family did was talk about their schools’ pride and traditions, such as homecoming and marching band, and that made Edelin eager to have the same experience. 

“It's a rite of passage, and it’s all I’ve been looking forward to since I was in 6th grade,” the senior Middletown High School student said.

It’s not only about the legacy. As a black female, she said, she wanted to go somewhere she can relate to people culturally.

“Growing up in Middletown, we don't always have the same opportunities and don't always have people who look like you,” Edelin said. “From 6th grade to now, getting me through was, 'I am going to go to college at an HBCU. I am going to have this experience. Right now, it might be rough, but in the future, I am going to go to an HBCU.’”

Cultural Importance

Although not all students who want to go to an HBCU come from Edelin’s background, as many pursue these schools because of the cultural impact they have on an education.

Middletown High senior student Aerin McKenzie, also black, said her family didn’t go to HBCUs. She thinks it would be interesting to experience the traditions for the first time and see the diversity within her culture.

“I think sometimes we are portrayed as there is only one way to be black and only one way to be black and smart,” she said. “I think it would be really cool to see smart black people and artistic black people.”

HBCUs are institutions established prior to 1964 with the mission of educating black Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many were founded in an environment of legal segregation when most post-secondary schools were not open to young people of color. 

There are 107 universities across 22 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands. Delaware State University in Dover is one.

Of black students attending post-secondary institutions, 9% attended HBCUs in 2017, according to the center’s most recent statistics.

“It's an understatement to say HBCUs are important,” McKenzie said. “For so long to have to go to institutions where there was purposely no room for you than to go somewhere where you know you will be cherished is really important.”

Diversity

When aspiring lawyer McKenzie started taking more Advanced Placement classes, she said she typically ended up with the same group of people in all her classes, but there were fewer  people who looked like her.

“You kind of forget what it's like to be around people who look like you, but also have the same type of mind,” she said. “Being around other intelligent black people is really refreshing because you don't see it very often.”

Edelin, who wants to be a OB-GYN, said she is the minority compared to white and black men and white women in her medical classes.

“I really don't see many black women in my classes,” she said. “It's a barrier not relating on a cultural level.”

McKenzie said it gets lonely in a class where no one can relate culturally. After talking about science, she wants to share personal experiences with those who understand. Those kinds of bonds are crucial to her, so she wants to attend a university where she can make those bonds. 

HBCU fair for all

In September, Appoquinimink School District hosted its second HBCU fair. Students had the chance to meet with representatives from some of the top HBCUs in the U.S. and National Pan-Hellenic Council, an organization comprised of nine historically African American fraternities and sororities. 

aQuena Williams, Middletown High School’s college and career counselor, said about 20 universities attended.

Recruiters helped with applications, financial aid, internships and mentor support and showed off the traditions and pride that define an HBCU experience.

The fair offered on-site admission and free applications. McKenzie said with college application barriers still present for African Americans, opportunities like this help with making it economically feasible.

“I think there's a lot of people who don't have the same type of resources,” she said. “Not everyone who goes to the fair goes to Middletown High School. So people from other schools who don't have the same resources can be walked through the process and have the same chance of applying as everyone else.”

In 2017, a college application fee cost $70 on average, according to Forbes. If a student applies to 10 schools, it would cost $700. McKenzie thinks she will spend about $600.

Edelin said having a fair exposed her to universities she otherwise might not have been able to get in-depth information from face-to-face.

The fair was not only for black students but for all students, Williams said. 

“It’s really about these diverse institutions of learning and the legacies they have,” she said. “We want to put on display for all of our students.” She said more than 500 families attended.

Williams said the idea was born from a presentation to students about the universities. Four staff members were there. One was white — Middletown’s principal — and three were African American. 

They polled the students, asking them to guess which three attended an HBCU. The students identified the three African American staff members, but this was not correct. The principal had.

According to the education center, non-black students made up 24 percent of enrollment at HBCUs in 2017. The staff decided it was important for students to understand HBCUs are not just institutions for black students.

“It’s not just about, ‘Look, there are these schools for black students,’ but, ‘Hey, there are these schools that were developed because black students didn't have any opportunities, but still exist, thrive and have this cultural richness,’’’ Williams said.

Choosing a college

Some of the HBCUs at the fair gave out full-ride scholarships.

Edelin was offered five scholarships: Lincoln University, Bowie State University, Norfolk State University, Benedict College and Coppin State University.

McKenzie was offered one from Delaware State University. 

Both applied to predominantly white institutions, but Edelin is leaning toward historically-black Xavier University of Louisiana. McKenzie has not decided.  

Edelin said she is giving herself options, but she wants to go somewhere she will get a well-rounded education inside and outside the classroom.

“I can go to Princeton or Yale and no doubt be the best doctor I could ever imagine, but who I would be as a person?”  she said. “Not only are HBCUs as good at the education part, but they are also catering to the culture and to who I want to be when I am out of college.

“It’s not only about medical school and being the best doctor. It’s about being the best African American woman I can be.”