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HBCUs topic of Black History Month 'table talk'

To the life-defining questions of which college and what career add one about the advantage – or not – of attending a college whose culture and ethnic composition more closely match the fact that you’re an African American high school student.

 African American high school juniors sit in a semi-circle as a young man addresses them virtually.Kinston High School made an effort to answer that and other questions with a virtual table talk last week that featured four LCPS graduates – all African American, a former and present student at HBCUs (Historically Black College and University) in the state, and two graduates of PWIs (Predominately White Institutions). A group of KHS juniors connected with them virtually in a dialogue moderated by event organizer Briana Summers, who works as college adviser at Kinston High through Carolina College Advising Corps.

“I wanted to do something special for Black History Month and celebrate Black excellence in education. There's nothing better than having recent former Lenoir County students who are current college students or recent graduates of HBCUs and PWIs speak with our students about their college experience, campus culture and the variety of opportunities offered at their institutions,” Summers said after the event.

That’s the kind of insight Jeremiah Fields, one of the panelists, might have put to use when he graduated from Kinston High in 2016. Waited-listed at two UNC system universities, deterred by the cost of a private college despite the scholarship offer, he heeded the advice of a friend and applied to Winston-Salem State University “as my last resort.”

Arriving on a campus he’d never visited, being unfamiliar with what sets HBCUs apart, Fields nevertheless embraced the experience. “It turned into the best four years of my life,” he told the high school students.

He graduated in 2020 with a degree in business administration – a degree helped along because he had earned a business certificate from Lenoir Community College while in high school – and with a long list of campus accomplishments, from his work as game day operations manager for the athletic department to his involvement with the Student Government Association to his election as vice president of the freshman and sophomore classes and as WSSU’s Mr. Senior.

Not surprisingly, Fields touted an HBCU’s sense of community, where a smaller campus and smaller classes make the transition from high school less jarring, where African American students will find “people who look like you who have had similar experiences as you that are equally as motivated and like-minded,” Fields said. “You find out a lot about yourself going to a HBCU.”

Adding their voices to the discussion were former LCPS students Zaria Bell, a 2021 graduate of UNC-Pembroke; Tlejah Chapman, a 2021 graduate of UNC-Greensboro; and Bryson Jones, a sophomore at NC Central University.

Among tips the panel gave the high school students concerned:

  •   Embracing the college experience. “You are definitely going to live your best lives right here in college,” Jones said. “You’ll meet different people from different areas and it’s really fun to meet new people. One of the most important things about college is my opinion is not only academics but in furthering your relationships.” 
  •   Choosing a college. “You want to pick a college that’s known for your major,” said Chapman, who earned a degree in biology from UNC-G. “My cousin also went to UNC-G, so I was familiar with it my junior year. UNC-G is also known for fine arts and business, but they have a science building that I love. You really want to go to a university that has an atmosphere that you love, because that’s the place you’re going to be learning for the next four years.”
  •   Doing the research. Bell, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in business at Pembroke after earning a computer science degree there in December, recommended visiting the campuses of colleges under consideration. “I decided on Pembroke after touring there in 2018. I just knew that was the place for me. My experience there has been pretty awesome. I love how each class is no bigger than 20-30 people. Having that one-on-one connection with your teachers is really good.”
  •   Evaluating HBCUs vs. PWIs. “If you think you want that HBCU experience, you need to look into it,” Chapman said. “I went to a PWI and it’s very different, so if you want something different, you should try it. UNC-G is very diverse.”

Summers reprised her virtual table talk Monday for a group of KHS seniors. Scheduled panelists were Zamiri Jones-Gillis, a senior at Winston-Salem State; Alysee Harris, a 2021 graduate of NC A&T; Lesley Sutton, a sophomore at UNC; and Cameron Thomas, a 2021 graduate of Morehouse College.

The table talk events, like others that Summers organizes at Kinston High, are designed to put students in a college-going frame of mind and help prepare them for the transition from high school.

“Each individual speaker brings something different to the virtual table talk that these students can carry out with them for the remainder of their time at KHS and after graduation,” Summers said. “Having people from both institutions also lets our students know they can succeed at an HBCU and PWI as a person of color. There is a community for them, resources and opportunities awaiting them no matter their identities, circumstances and where they choose to attend college.”