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HBCU Graduations

Reflecting on FAMU’s Rattler resilience

A Rhoden Fellow reminisces about his Florida A&M experience and what it means to graduate from an HBCU

From the first moment I arrived on its campus in Tallahassee, Florida A&M has felt like home to me.

My path to FAMU began in 2014 during my sophomore year of high school in Miami, when I attended a Dow Jones News Fund workshop, hosted by FAMU’s School of Journalism & Graphic Communication. There, I met the university’s dean of the School of Journalism, Ann Wead Kimbrough, whose words of wisdom proved to be vital in my decision to choose FAMU and embark on a career in journalism. “Make no mistake, this is a challenging, but nurturing environment here with our staff and faculty,” she said. “I can promise you that your dreams will come true here.” And come true they did.

The overall culture of the “FAMUly” community was the epitome of Black excellence, Black representation and what it means to be a historically Black college and university (HBCU) student. Almost everyone around me looked like me and shared my same goals to succeed and make the Black community proud. I completely submerged myself in this experience and took advantage of every opportunity to build my student portfolio.

I ended my first year of college by getting published in the school’s newspaper, The Famuan. The following year, I became involved as a producer for The Playmakers radio show. In my junior year, I was the sideline reporter for the Rattler Sports Network and wrote articles for HBCU Gameday. I continued as a sideline reporter the following semester while creating and producing The Willie Simmons Show.

The most important connection I developed at FAMU was with my mentor Keith Miles, director of the Office of Communications and the former voice of Rattler Football for more than 30 years. Our relationship propelled my journalism career and opened many doors for me. Under his tutelage, I had life-changing experiences such as observing and eventually working in the broadcast booth. He was like my in-house father figure and provided invaluable career wisdom and insight. I am forever grateful to him for believing in my potential and taking the time to help me cultivate and expand my talents.

I am constantly inspired by the accomplishments of my fellow Rattlers and reminded of their outstanding careers just by walking through Tucker and Lee halls. FAMU alumni such as Kim Godwin, the president of ABC News, and Tiffany Greene of ESPN, the first Black woman to do college football play-by-play on a major network, have proven anything is possible. As a fellow Rattler, Greene did not hesitate when I asked her to be a guest on the Rhoden Fellows podcast last October. Although we have had different journeys, I think we share the same strength and go-getter characteristics that embody all successful FAMU alumni — and it stems from the tenacious trip our school’s founders went through to establish our beloved university.

Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs, a Florida legislator, introduced House Bill 133 in 1884 to create a normal school in Gainesville for whites and a school for African Americans in Jacksonville. Founded on Oct. 3, 1887, and later relocated to Tallahassee, FAMU began with 15 students and two instructors. The university now has an enrollment of more than 9,000 students and has provided me with endless inspiration and opportunities to network.

I think I share our founder’s vision of resilience regardless of any circumstance. I found this to be true when I dealt with my unfortunate battle with COVID-19 last year. Healing while completing my virtual learning and Rhoden Fellowship, the inspiring story of FAMU’s evolution echoed in my memory as a catalyst to keep excelling despite the circumstances. To reach the highest pinnacles of life, just like the “highest of the seven hills,” FAMU.

My HBCU has given me an opportunity to discuss ideas and engage with the next generation of Black movers and shakers. My university has always encouraged students to speak up, and has provided me with a platform to engage with local, state and national political figures.

Sure, I will miss Fried Chicken Wednesday, Fried Fish Fridays, Set Friday, spending time with the Alpha Xi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, and working closely with FAMU athletics. The unforgettable memories we’ve made have been the best moments of my college career. The culmination of my experiences on campus has given me the resources needed to live up to my full potential.

As my next chapter begins, I will never forget the advice of Miami-Dade County commissioner and FAMU alumnus Oliver Gilbert: “Do not let the hill take over you, but you take over the hill.” I’ll hold those words close to my heart as I continue cultivating that “take over” mindset, wherever my journey leads me.

Calvin Sykes is a graduate student in sports science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Fla. A native of Miami, Sykes was the sideline reporter for the Florida A&M Rattlers football from 2018-2020, program director for the school’s radio station WANM FM 90.5, and has written for HBCU GameDay.