Recently, Senator Barbara Boxer of California announced that in 2016 she would be retiring after holding her Senate seat since 1992. One of the first people to announce making a run for Boxer’s seat was California Attorney General Kamala Harris. As California is a powerful and influential state and Harris is a rising star, the race will certainly be of national interest. Though there are many reasons for excitement one that comes to mind is that Harris is an alumnus of an HBCU. Moments like this are prime for HBCUs to use in the recruitment and marketing of their institutions. With such rich histories, the contributions and achievements of HBCUs and their graduates often focus on examples that are not contemporary. Though the histories and legacies of HBCUs are strong enough to stand alone, in this increasingly competitive higher education marketplace these histories and legacies are only enriched by telling the present HBCU stories of success and telling these stories often.
Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, went on to graduate from University of California, Hastings College of the Law and to be the first female, African American and Asian American Attorney General for the State of California. She is a contemporary testimony to the preparation, leadership, and academic acumen of many HBCU students. Kamala is not an exception—there are many more just like her. When alumni, particularly younger alumni, are doing things that garner local and national attention, it is important that HBCU marketing, public relations, and development offices communicate to alumni, current students, prospective students, and the general public. These examples contribute to the message that HBCUs are institutions that provide students with the ability to be successful and achieve their personal, professional, and academic goals. There are institutions that are very active in communicating when an alumnus is in the national news for accomplishments, or if a program at the institution has garnered notable attention and accolades. Some examples include Howard University, FAMU, Dillard, Paul Quinn, Spelman, and Morehouse Colleges. These contemporary and public stories of success signal to prospective students and their families, especially those unfamiliar with HBCUs, that HBCUs have always and continue to produce competitive students and formidable leaders. This is especially important for Black students who may be misinformed by other sources of information on HBCUs.
Though formally the recruitment and marketing of HBCUs falls on the shoulders of the institutions, all HBCU advocates play a role. We should all be telling both the historic and contemporary story of HBCUs to prospective students and their families. HBCUs can use current students’ stories of success as recruitment tools – stories like that of Kamala Harris. Alumni can not only talk about how HBCUs contributed to their personal successes, but they can point to their peers as other examples of the great education found at HBCUs. Those who research HBCUs can also play a role by using their platforms to make information on the benefits of attending an HBCU available to the general public.
As we are in the heart of college application season, HBCUs and their allies should use every opportunity to show why their institutions should be at the top of many students’ lists. The next Kamala Harris is out there waiting. Will she attend an HBCU?
About the Authors
Felecia Commodore is a fourth year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia’s research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.
Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.