When Karen Walls dropped off her son Curtis at Clark Atlanta University, she knew he’d be OK. The 18-year-old honor student was smart, but ran into some trouble while hanging out with the wrong crowd at home in Chicago.
“I was so worried about him not graduating from high school, yet he ended up being number eight in the class,” she says. “His grades have never been a problem.”
So, after getting caught up, Curtis Walls faced a judge to see what would be next. His mother stepped in.
“I had to fight for him to be able to leave and go to school,” Walls says. “I told the judge that it was either school or he couldn’t live with me.”
The judge understood. By going to Clark, Walls’ son would have the opportunity to stay out of trouble and be under the mentorship of educators who understand him. She allowed him to leave the area and he was off.
Immediately after reaching Atlanta, Walls saw the community rally around him.
“His adviser was really encouraging,” she says. “He told him that he had helped him get a really good schedule so that he could do his best and be successful. He said it would set him up for a 4.0.”
HBCU schools are known for their insight and commitment to the African-American student providing wisdom and skills to succeed in the world. The administration and professors understand the challenges of being Black and are aware of the details and specifics that can impact a student’s life unique to the Black experience. They are there to provide life tools and act as guides as the students pursue their education. They are best equipped to give support and counsel troubled youth because some have faced the issues of poverty, and lack of opportunity. They know who their students are.
Clark Atlanta University is one of the colleges heading to Chicago this week for the Chicago Football Classic and is a major recruiter of Chicago area teens like Curtis Walls. Getchel L. Caldwell II, senior vice president of institutional advancement and university relations at Clark Atlanta, says the university’s current freshman class has 88 students from Chicago, a number he hopes will more than double next year.
“There are so many wonderful young Afro-American and brown people in the city that we want to capture,” Caldwell said during the event’s press conference this summer, stressing how well Chicago students perform while at Clark Atlanta.
Recent research shows that it’s not only the academic offerings that make a college student successful. A 2015 Gallup study concluded that graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Clark Atlanta have a step up over other graduates. Thriving socially, financially, and in other areas of well-being, HBCU graduates are more likely to have strong relationships, know their purpose in life, and are motivated to achieve goals, the study says.
The graduates attributed their success to the support they received from their schools: 58 percent of Black graduates at HBCUs said they had a professor who cared for them, compared to only 25 percent of graduates at other schools.
Sixteen years ago, Brad Walker was sitting in the same space as Curtis as a freshman at Clark Atlanta University — fearless, but not concerned with consequences. After Walker got into a brawl with a Morehouse student, a dean called him to his office on a weekend, sat him down, and straightened him out.
Rick Robinson, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Clark Atlanta University, was not letting Walker throw away his opportunity.
“He got right to the nitty gritty and told me that fighting was grounds for expulsion,” Walker says. “He said, ‘You can either get it together or I’ll book you a flight back to Chicago.’ That was minute one of a two-hour conversation that ended up having to be about everything other than why I was there in his office. He saw something in me that, at the time, I didn’t know I had.”
Teacher’s Kind Gesture
And of course, the support didn’t end there. When Walker later had problems with a class and told his professor that he was considering just dropping it, she invited him to have dinner at home with her family.
“She told me that maybe I needed to understand her better so I could understand how she taught, because my problem wasn’t understanding the curriculum,” he says. “This lady didn’t have to open up her home and family life to a junior in college. That’s a step above mentorship. That’s ‘you’re my family, I value you being a success’ and I loved that feeling. You can’t measure how much love you get from people who make it their business to make you a success.”
After graduation, Walker spent years working for Chicago Public Schools before heading to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. The interactions he had with his professors set the backdrop for his teaching approach.
“I tried to give that type of feeling to my students,” he says.
Across the street at fellow Atlanta University center member Morehouse College, a similar environment dominates how professors and administrators interact with students. This year, the historic all-male college welcomed the 730 new students who form its 150th class and who will join the ranks of men such as Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Tyriq Jackson, a 20-year-old Morehouse student from Atlanta, knows firsthand how the guidance of a dean can change a student’s trajectory. When he didn’t have enough financial aid to pay for his tuition, Dean Kevin Booker stepped in and helped. Among all of his duties as associate dean of student life, he helped Jackson find enough scholarships to stay in school and then added him to the Dreams to Teach program to expose him to even more opportunities.
“Not only did I stay, but they put me in a program where we met every Friday and went over study tips and other things that would make us successful. I could take educational trips — I studied abroad in Cuba for two weeks — and everything has been paid for.”
Because of men like Dean Booker and other alumni he spends time with, Jackson says his time at Morehouse has been transformational.
“Being at Morehouse will change you because it’s a school of Black men who are focused on being successful,” he says. “I was never the kind of kid to take school seriously and now, I am. I want to be one of the top performers because when you’re around people like that, you want to be one of the best.”
Quinn Rallins received his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse before going on to work as a community organizer. He also received a master’s degree from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and graduated from Northeastern University with his JD in May. The guidance he received at Morehouse served as his foundation.
“My adviser, Dr. Hamid Taqi, had a tremendous impact of my college experience,” he says. “He was from Sierra Leone and a brilliant thinker. His office was a place of refuge for deeper learning and critical questions about the world. I would sit in his office for hours, and talk with him about societal issues.”
In addition to mental exploration, Rallins says he learned how to expand his horizons beyond his own interests.
“I entered Morehouse with a bit of rugged individualism,” he says. “As I matriculated, however, I began to build community with my classmates and developed a shared sense of purpose. It taught me that, in many ways, our destiny was bound together. I’ve carried and furthered that sense of community.”A strong sense of shared success is also essential at Morehouse’s official sister school, Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is one of two HBCUs for women and has graduated notable alumni such as Yvonne Johnson, the first Black mayor of Greensboro
A strong sense of shared success is also essential at Morehouse’s official sister school, Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is one of two HBCUs for women and has graduated notable alumni such as Yvonne Johnson, the first Black mayor of GreensboroWhatever Happened to Baby Jane? actress Maidie Norman, and Belinda J. Foster, the first Black woman district attorney in the state of North Carolina.
Like other alumnae who’ve come before her, broadcast journalist Torene Harvin is a “Bennett Belle.” When she ran into financial trouble during her freshman year, Bennett made sure that she could stay.
“In my first year, I was $10,000 in debt,” Harvin says. “I was trying to call family members to help, and the business department put me on a payment plan. They said that if I kept above a 3.0, they’d give me scholarships. Every year, I kept a GPA after that and I didn’t have to worry much about it again. If you’re doing well on campus academically, they’ll make sure you stick around. They’ll look out for you.”
Harvin attributes this support to the family-like atmosphere that you can only have when everyone knows your name.
“Everyone knows you; you’re not just a number,” Harvin says. “It’s easier to have a personal connection with your professor, and even if I hadn’t taken a certain professor’s class, a professor in a different department would still know my name. It’s really close-knit.”
Remembering Her Own Struggles
Close relationships and connections with faculty and staff are equally prevalent at Howard University, which has over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Ranked as the second-best HBCU by U.S. News & World Reports, the Washington, D.C., university’s notable alumni ranging from Thurgood Marshall to Toni Morrison to Phylicia Rashad have put their school on the map.
As a college and career specialist, and now, scholarship manager Chicago Public Schools, Michele Howard’s job is all about getting teens into college, but back when she was a sophomore at Howard, her biggest university-related obstacle was passing a math course. She failed and had to take the class again. Feeling defeated her second time around, her new professor’s positive energy and spirit pulled her through.
Howard says that he walked into the room that first day of class and said, “Everyone is going to pass this class. If you need help, you will come to me. No one fails my class. If you do not understand, you follow me after class to the Center for Academic Reinforcement and we work there until you do understand.”
Her professor, Rackham Goodlett, was the center’s director, and Howard soon found out it was going to be her second home. She passed with a B and passed every other math class she took at Howard after that one.
“I can truly say without the dedication, patience and support of Professor Rackham Goodlett I would not have made it out of those classes,” Howard says. “The very first day of class with Professor Goodlett was the sentiment of my experience at Howard University: No one fails, we work until we understand, then we succeed.”
With her youngest child over 700 miles away, Walls knows that he’s in good hands and trusts that the professors, administrators and mentors that he will encounter have his best interests in mind. His name could one day be added to Clark Atlanta’s long list of notable alumni that includes influencers such as Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy and Marva Collins, who’s known for the Westside Preparatory School she opened in Chicago’s Garfield Park.
Now, it’s just up to Curtis himself to take advantage of it all. She told him, “This is your start. This is the start of the rest of your life. Make the best of it.”