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These two Howard grads have compiled a book on the HBCU experience

Christopher Cathcart and Tia Tyree explain their book and the thoughts behind it

Two women and three men are sitting, laughing and sipping from tall white cups in an Arlington, Virginia, Starbucks. The group of black professionals are in deep conversation, occasionally bursting with laughter. A few high-fives and some daps are given between the guys.

One young lady, appearing to be in her late 20s, remembers the time the 25-year-old Subaru her parents gave her broke down on the highway heading to Virginia Beach, eliciting more laughs from the group.

A guy recalls the moment he met the woman who would become his wife. During their undergraduate studies, she was a “loud-mouth sorority girl” whom he vowed never to utter a sentence to in life. He talked about being “on the yard” when she walked by with friends, their eyes met and he left his friends to try to get her attention. His homeboys clowned him for days, reminding him of the thing he said he’d never do.

The guy and the “loud-mouth sorority girl” are both lawyers.

More laughter ensues from the corner, this time a little louder.

This banter went on for the next 30 minutes. Funny, sad, life-changing stories are shared among the group until they hug and depart.

These memories are often verbalized among friends but hardly ever written about. College is one of the most crucial times of a person’s life. People are often away from home for the first time, living independently, making decisions without parents. Students develop memories — ones that are often never shared.

Tia Tyree decided she wanted to bring such experiences to light. So she reached out to motivational speaker Christopher Cathcart, a fellow graduate from a historically black college or university. The HBCU alums both felt it was important to highlight the stories of HBCU graduates. HBCU Experience — The Book: A Collection of Essays Celebrating the Black College Experience was released in 2014.

The book is a collection of essays written about the lives and families of HBCU students. It goes beyond statistics and demographics and gives a better idea of the full college experience.

Cathcart and Tyree met at a Howard University homecoming event for the university’s department of journalism.

Tyree is a professor and the assistant chair of Howard’s department of strategic, legal and management communications. She teaches several graduate and undergraduate courses.

“He and I are both PR [public relations] professionals, so we had a lot to talk about that day,” Tyree said. “We spoke briefly about book ideas. I always wanted to do a HBCU book, but he wanted to do a collection of essays about men who graduated from Howard University. We put the ideas together, and it worked very well.”

There are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States. These institutions play important roles in providing an education within a wide array of disciplines.

“That’s the beauty of the HBCU experience,” Cathcart said. “They’re not segmented. They’re not separated. They are all connected one after the other. They all play an important role to continue a legacy. We have some contributions from individuals who graduated as far back as the late ’50s, early ’60s and as recently as a few years ago.”

Cathcart is a highly sought-after public speaker who has lectured at some of the nation’s leading colleges and universities. He organizes and moderates an annual panel for the African Refugee Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group dedicated to addressing issues facing African refugees both in the United States and abroad.

Cathcart explained that many of the contributors share unique experiences.

“The type of experiences, the type of energy, the type of affection they have for the school, what they experienced when they were there are all very similar,” he said. “So what it shows is that, whether you graduated from a school in the ’30s or ’40s or this spring, there is a connectivity of HBCU graduates and those that experience going through that process.”

The essays show what was important then is still important now, and what was special remains special when it comes to these schools and the students’ experiences.

“As an HBCU graduate, I have such fond memories of the experiences that defined my time at Howard University,” Cathcart said. “And sometimes you take for granted that it’s such a unique and special thing to you.”

Chris Cathcart

Christopher Cathcart (L) as an undergraduate student at Howard University.

Tyree and Cathcart both penned essays on their own HBCU experiences.

Cathcart attended Howard between 1981 and 1986 on a football scholarship despite his baseball lineage as the son of former Negro Leagues player Bill Cathcart.

During his first semester at Howard, Cathcart was on a road trip.

“I took it with a couple of buddies of mine where we had to drive from Howard to the Chesapeake area in Virginia to drop off a friend for a holiday weekend, and on the way back me and the other guy went into a snowstorm, spun off the highway and this group of white cats came by and helped us out and we thought they were coming to do us some harm,” Cathcart said. “So we had these flashbacks of like the Freedom Riders running through our heads. They actually parked, got out and helped put our car back on the road.”

Tyree’s essay for the collection is titled Race and Education.

“I imagine, for some individuals, race is just a part of who they are, sort of like their name. It’s an essential part of their identity, but it’s never questioned, challenged or impacted by their everyday activities. I was never that lucky,” she wrote.

Dr. Tia Tyree (right) and Dr. Dionne C. Clemons during their undergraduate years at Howard University.

Tia Tyree (R) and Dionne C. Clemons during their undergraduate years at Howard University.

Tyree’s goal is to “undo all of the stereotypes and falsehoods that exist about HBCUs.”

“In my mind, the book should be filled with thousands of essays from graduates from every single one of the HBCUs,” Tyree explained. “In my wildest dreams, we’d have published a product that looked like one of those old encyclopedia sets. You could have filled an entire bookshelf with HBCU Experience — The Encyclopedia. Someone interested in HBCUs could search by name, school, topic, year or whatever. We’d have enough stories to get a true history of HBCUs, not just a brief understanding.”

She said the collective HBCU experiences are so diverse and unique that they create a wonderful tapestry of history that must be captured.

“You can really learn to understand the depth of diversity within them, opportunities they offer and the impact they have, by simply hearing from graduates,” said Tyree. “There is nothing more powerful than storytelling, and it’s important for HBCU graduates to really explain to the world what their experiences really meant to them.”

According to Tyree, while all are well-written and interesting, there is one essay that stands out. Her favorite essay in the collection is from Gladstone “Tony” Alleyne, a 1965 graduate of Cheyney State College, now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which happens to be the first HBCU established in the country.

“He wrote a story called Peanut Butter and Jelly,” Tyree explained. “It’s a wild story about how someone took his transistor radio, and one female student promised to get it back, if he made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s such a simple story about a crazy afternoon in college. Yet, how it’s written and the language used takes one back to his dorm room. The reader can literally just imagine his or herself watching the whole thing unfold. Plus, when was the last time you read the words ‘great googa mooga’ in a book?”

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.