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Internationals ‘finding empathy’ at HBCUs in US

‘Who am I? Who do I represent? How do I want to be seen?’ These are some of the questions former international student Wesam Shash asked herself when exploring her evolving identity upon first arriving from Egypt to the campus of Alabama A&M University.

AAMU was founded in 1875 by a former slave, Dr. William Hooper Councill. Photo: wikimedia

"I didn’t know about HBCUs"

AAMU is one of over 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States.

An HBCU is a US institution of higher education, established prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that holds accreditation from a nationally recognised agency and whose principal mission is educating Black Americans. HBCUs were founded during the era of legal segregation in the US and therefore provided access for African Americans to pursue higher education.

And while HBCUs compose only 3% of American HEIs, they have significantly contributed to the advancement of myriad Black professionals, with 25% of African American college graduates earning their degree from an HBCU. Moreover, the list of prominent Black figures with diplomas from HBCUs, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, and Kamala Harris, is both vast and ever-expanding.

Today, the racial composition of HBCU students is more diverse, with almost 25% of enrolled students identifying in a non-Black category. In addition to HBCUs welcoming record numbers of Whites, Asians, and Hispanic students over the past five years, many are also experiencing a surge in applications from international students as well.

Shash shared with The PIE News that when studying as an international student in the US, she had numerous characteristics that set her apart from many of her fellow students – beyond country of origin.

She is Muslim, wears a hijab, and was an older, returning student working two part-time jobs to help support a young family. “I look different. I have an accent. I have a different religion, as Christian is the majority. And I’m from Africa, but not considered African-American. People just don’t know where to place me,” she said while reflecting on the concepts of identity and belonging at HBCUs.

Shash believes that many students who attend HBCUs understand what it feels like to be part of the minority. And, as such, she asserted their empathy often translates into a greater acceptance of others. She added that she used her “outgoing personality” to relate to and befriend others.

Likewise, current AAMU international student Anita Bozhko, from Belarus, told The PIE that “just being herself”, was the best way to acclimate in her new environment. The senior graphic design and marketing major had previously been studying at another US university and transferred to AAMU because of the strength of the tennis program.

She said the HBCU designation did not factor into her decision-making. “I didn’t know about HBCUs,” Bozhko said. “I didn’t even know they existed.”

She said she did not experience much culture shock and believes this was due to being part of an organised sport on campus. “The Coach; the team; they made me feel so comfortable… Like I belong.”

“But many at HBCUs know the struggle. They know what that’s like”

Echoing Shash’s sentiments, Bozhko proffered, “I am the minority. But many at HBCUs know the struggle. They know what that’s like. And they really value people as individuals. They listen to me. And they always support me.”

Bozhko said she enjoyed her AAMU experience so much she has decided to pursue an MBA program after she graduates later this spring, adding, “I can’t wait to continue my journey as an AAMU Bulldog.”

Jewell Winn is the president of the Association of International Education Administrators and the executive director for International Programs at Tennessee State University, one of the largest HBCUs.

“It is important to have different cultures on a campus because we can’t send all of our students to study abroad, so we find unique ways to bring the world to them,” said Winn.

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