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HBCU Graduations

I faced my share of challenges, but the HBCU experience owes me nothing

Transitioning from Florida A&M to North Carolina A&T, this Rhoden Fellow witnessed the highs and lows of attending a historically Black college

I walked into my historically Black college and university (HBCU) with aspirations to be a plastic surgeon living in Beverly Hills, California, with Rodeo Drive at my fingertips. But I left my HBCU a well-rounded sports journalist ready to tell the stories of the underrepresented.

When I rolled my 14 suitcases through the East Village dormitory at Florida A&M University with my mother, grandmother and father, I felt like an overdue egg that finally hatched. We traveled from BWI Airport to Jacksonville, Florida, and drove three hours to Tallahassee.

Before I set foot on the “Highest of Seven Hills,” I was in a group chat with about 12 other girls entering the university with similar interests. I felt fully equipped to take on the basking heat and Fried Chicken Fridays, with outfits strategically planned for the upcoming week of classes and laid delicately across my bed.

“Move 900 miles and 13 hours away from home,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.

After only one week of classes, I quickly realized I was what some may consider “lost in the sauce.” Usually when people go to college out of state, they lean on students who are from the same city as them. My goals and interests did not align with theirs.

Day after day, I found myself looking depression in the eyes as I slowly began to realize FAMU was not the HBCU on the beach I once thought it was. I had no friends, no tribe and no one to depend on within arm’s reach. This search for companionship turned into my main focus, not excelling in the classroom.

Once I realized I was no longer in sync with my studies, I began to take daily trips to the S.H. Coleman Library on campus. One day when walking to my normal study spot, I stopped in the library’s Starbucks to get my usual iced venti chai latte. I then glanced at the community board and noticed the Beta Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was hosting its annual Miss Black and Gold Pageant. Initially, I did not pay the posting any attention. But I then ran into one of the chapter members, who is from Bowie, Maryland, like myself. He saw me reading the flyer and suggested that I test my luck and apply.

I had recently dyed my hair a bright blue raspberry color to fit in with a previous group of friends. We all agreed to dye our hair different colors to stand out during homecoming. To be taken seriously for the pageant, I dyed my hair back to black.

I decided to apply, and I interviewed with the fraternity the following day.

As I was walking home later in the week, I received an email notification saying I had been selected. I was overjoyed by this opportunity and started to feel like I truly belonged at the university.

During the pageant process, I gained 14 sisters and three brothers. I learned how to walk in heels. I had attended Bishop McNamara High School for dance, a performing arts school in Forestville, Maryland, and had not found a way to continue to pour into this passion since arriving on campus. The pageant fed my hunger to dance and perform. And on pageant day, I was named Miss Beta Nu, which I refer to as one of the highlights of my college experience.

During her time at Florida A&M University, Alexis Davis was named Miss Beta Nu.

Angela McDaniel

This satisfaction did not last 24 hours. The following day, one of my online banking accounts got hacked, leaving me with $2.89 to my name. I was far from any financial support I could receive from my parents. I was still beginning to foster friendships with my pageant sisters and did not want to be viewed as a burden.

The same group of girls I decided to embark on the rainbow hair journey with were still around. I knew they did not have my best interests at heart, but I wanted to belong and was afraid to lock eyes with depression again.

Instead of assisting me with ways to make money or seek legal action against my hacked account, they made fun of me for not being able to participate in activities with them. They stopped offering to give me rides to Walmart and inviting me to Taco Tuesday. 

A few months went by and I was able to get on a solid financial footing, but I was still ignoring the red flags of my friends group outside of my pageant sisters. Although I was facing social challenges, professionally, I was starting to get clarity.

In East Village, I met someone who would wind up being one of my closest friends, a point guard for the men’s basketball team at FAMU, MJ Randolph. He wanted to get his story out but didn’t trust any local Tallahassee writers to execute it authentically. We jokingly brought up the idea of me writing it, but I saw this as impossible at the time because I was not a journalism student.

The article was a catalyst to changing my major to journalism, and an entirely new world opened up for me. Although I was experiencing what seemed to be professional triumphs, I was still having difficulty navigating FAMU’s social scene.

It would take the social scene clashing with my safety to force me to let the friends group go. We all attended a party about a block away from my dorm. As we entered the party, I was very excited about what was to come since my friends were close to the male host.

The male host came to speak with us. We were all standing in a circle talking, playing different drinking games and debating about different sneakers. He offered to show us his sneaker section in his room. We all agreed to view the collection, but I was too busy having my first encounter with heavy drinking to realize my other friends did not come along.

I found myself secluded and no longer in control. Soon afterward, I was sexually assaulted. Feeling at an all-time low, I returned to my dorm and began packing up for Christmas vacation. My parents had purchased a flight for me to return home the following day.

During my time at home, I was extremely quiet. My mother noticed and asked me daily if everything was OK. I falsely assured myself that I was fine and simply tired from the long semester. The three-week break flew by and before I could blink, I was boarding my direct flight back to what felt like the jungle. I quietly sobbed the entire flight with the hood of my hoodie up, hoping to go unnoticed.

I spent the entire three months of the spring semester alone until I met someone who at the time fulfilled my fantasy of finding love at an HBCU. Walt Disney World is about four hours away from FAMU. We planned to take a four-day trip there instead of having a traditional college spring break.

As we entered the land “where dreams come true,” I was still unhappy. I became frustrated because I was at what was called the happiest place on earth but could still not manage to get out of depression’s sight for even a second. He became frustrated with me, and it spilled over into the relationship.

Feeling the need to escape helplessness, I called my mother and asked her to fly me from Orlando, Florida, to Bowie. After flying back home with my small carry-on and only enough clothes for a short weekend, I never returned to FAMU.

I contacted my professors explaining to them all the hardships I had faced. And in true HBCU fashion, they rallied around me. They offered to meet with me on Zoom and FaceTime to ensure that I received my credits and finished the semester from home.

When I returned to Maryland, I didn’t know what to do next. Not being in school felt like an out-of-body experience. Because of the discomfort this caused me, I knew I wanted to get back into a college classroom as soon as possible.

I applied to North Carolina A&T State University and Towson University. I ultimately chose N.C. A&T because it was away from home and close to my father’s family in Danville, Virginia. I also fell in love with the endless opportunities and family atmosphere.

Once I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in August 2019, I was reunited with many high school friends and felt I was in a safe place. I began writing for the school’s newspaper, The A&T Register. I wrote for the paper once or twice weekly. My contributions led to me becoming the lead sports reporter for the paper. I got the notification on my birthday that I would be filling this role.

That notification helped me realize I was at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing with the right people. It came after back-to-back denials of my applications to the Rhoden Fellowship program.

Alexis Davis was initiated into the Alpha Phi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority during her senior year at North Carolina A&T State University.

Alexus Brown

During my time at N.C. A&T, I was able to participate in student government activities as a senator for my college, was the chief commercial officer for Planned Parenthood Generation Action, and started an annual donation drive for expecting and new mothers. On April 3, I was initiated into the Alpha Phi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

While being a Rhoden Fellow, I attended my first NFL game, met Vice President Kamala Harris, learned more about my university while being ESPN’s eyes and ears on campus, and gained lifelong mentors. Due to my combined work at school and Andscape, I was able to land three full scholarship rides at Arizona State University, the University of Maryland and Northwestern University.

As I step into my next stage of life, I will miss the spontaneous trips to Taco Mama with my friends and being surrounded by individuals who look just like me. But, I stand firm in my belief that there are bigger and better things waiting for me. My HBCUs owe me nothing.

Alexis Davis is a former Rhoden Fellow. She loves styling suits with sneakers and can name any sneaker you show her. She quit basketball to cheer in high school but hopes the women's basketball coverage she does now makes the sport forgive her for going to the other side of the sideline.