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At Howard, I gained a sense of community and the camaraderie I had been longing for

How a popular dance introduced this Rhoden Fellow to Black college life

In 2015, I was a 15-year-old sophomore at Cypress High School in Cypress, California, a school whose population is 35% Asian, 29% white, 23% Latino and only 3.5% Black. Although I was comfortable with my Blackness growing up, the environment at Cypress did not always celebrate that Blackness in ways that benefited me. I was often “the only one” in my classes and at events, and rarely felt a sense of community.

One day, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a video of a bunch of Black students Swag Surfin’ in what looked like a school gymnasium. Swag Surfin’ was first introduced in a song of the same name in early 2009 by rap group F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz). From there, it morphed into an anthem and popular dance that can typically be seen at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The dance involves a large crowd of people standing next to one another, linking their arms and shoulders, and swaying from side to side to the beat.

The smiles, jubilation and sense of camaraderie on the faces of those Black students in the video were all things I had longed for. I wanted to be a part of that life. I had never experienced anything like that at Cypress. I looked through the comments on Twitter to find out where that gymnasium was located. Turns out it was Howard University. That was my first introduction to Howard and to HBCUs.

After doing my research and discovering what Howard meant to Black education and culture, the university stole my heart; I knew I had to be there. It was at that moment I dedicated my remaining high school years to getting into The Mecca. Sure enough, I was accepted and enrolled at Howard in the fall of 2018.

Of course, I didn’t come to Howard just to dance and Swag Surf. I arrived at The Mecca intending to bask in an environment where nearly everyone looked like me, gain lifelong friends, enhance my career and leave my mark on the university. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, so that was my major. The first organization I joined was Spotlight Network, a group dedicated to enhancing the journalistic abilities of HU students.

I relished the opportunity to work with other young Black journalists and report on issues in the Black community that other news outlets often ignored. Through my reporting for the Spotlight Network, I interviewed the cast of the 2019 movie Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, at a premiere held on Howard’s campus. I also assisted in an interview with future vice president Kamala Harris.

Sarah Jones-Smith

As time went on, my professors continued to recommend internships they believed would strengthen my résumé as a Black reporter in the business. After internships with the Los Angeles Wave, a newspaper that serves African Americans in Los Angeles County, and YourTango, a national lifestyle magazine for women, I was accepted into the fifth class of the Rhoden Fellowship program. This one-year sports journalism internship identifies and trains aspiring Black journalists with Andscape. The internship has allowed me to be mentored by the program’s founder, William Rhoden, and also gave me the opportunity to cover sporting events such as Super Bowl LVI, the Cricket Celebration Bowl, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and the NCAA men’s Final Four. I also attended Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation ceremony at the White House. Because the Rhoden Fellowship is limited to students who attend HBCUs, I likely would not have had these opportunities if I hadn’t attended Howard.

Although the coronavirus pandemic took away two of my years as a Howard student, I was able to leave my mark on the university. During the pandemic, some friends and I founded a campus organization called The Black Girls House. The mission is to serve, empower and advocate for the Black community through different forms of community service, including our annual Holiday Initiative, which raises money for needy families during the holidays. As a co-founder, I am pleased to see that mission still being fulfilled even as I move on to other things.

Deciding to attend an HBCU has proven to be one of the best decisions. The lessons learned and the friendships I have made at Howard are invaluable. I will forever be proud to be a Bison. As Howard alumnus Chadwick Boseman once said, “Howard forever!”

A senior broadcast journalism major from Orange County, Calif., Sarah Jones-Smith writes for The Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper, and her writing has been published by The Los Angeles Wave, and more.