For one freshman from a virtually all-white town, enrolling in a historically black university has been a lesson in diversity and self-discovery.
Stephanie Kwader knows she turns some heads on the campus of Bowie State University. As one of the white minority at the 5,500-student historically black university, “I know I stand out,” she says. “I have had people shout out things like, ‘Why are you here?’ ” she adds.
But in the six months since she started as a freshman, Ms. Kwader, 19, has made many friends here. Her life and her education, she says, have taken on a new dimension since she left the small town in northeastern Pennsylvania where her family has lived for generations, and where almost no one is African-American.
What’s more, she says, she is getting a full scholarship at an institution that offers a strong program in her chosen field, forensic psychology.
Students like Stephanie Kwader belong to a small but growing group: minority students on the campuses of the nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities. HBCUs, as they are referred to in the field, offer competitive academics with affordable tuition at a time when college costs are skyrocketing—attractions that cut across racial lines.
“A hidden treasure of programs can be found at HBCUs,” says Arnold Kee, the director of programs at the Institute of Higher Education Policy in Washington. He says their appeal includes good faculty members, nurturing environments, and, in the case of two-year colleges, the preparation of students to move on to other, more prominent programs.
Shades of Change
White and Hispanic undergraduate enrollment in historically black colleges and universities has inched up since the 1970s, federal statistics show.
“Other” includes Asians or Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and nonresident aliens.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
HBCUs were born starting in the mid-19th century with a mission to serve students—often, freed slaves or their children—who were barred from traditional state and private institutions or neglected by them. Today, as these colleges attract students from all races, their mission continues to evolve.
Louis W. Sullivan, the chairman of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, which advises the president and the U.S. secretary of education on strengthening such institutions, says historically black colleges have to balance the need for increasing diversity while preserving their traditional character.
“It is not an either-or situation,” he says, adding that diversity enriches the educational experience for students “because they have the opportunity to learn from each other about different cultures and how to communicate with each other.”
Still, he adds, HBCUs have to foster a respect for the heritage of the institutions.
“You want your graduates to be able to converse with anyone and feel comfortable and confident in doing that, but at the same time you want them to understand and be proud of their history,” says Dr. Sullivan, the president emeritus of Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine, an independent offshoot of historically black Morehouse College. He also served as the U.S. secretary of health and human services under the first President Bush.
Historically black colleges, both public and private, enrolled a total of nearly 290,000 students in 2001, according to the latest statistics available from the National Center for Education Statistics. As a proportion of undergraduate enrollment at HBCUs, whites went from 8.2 percent in 1976 to 11.1 percent in 2001.
Bowie State, founded in 1865, is part of the University of Maryland system. Officials say it leads the nation in graduating African-Americans with master’s degrees in computer science and information sciences, and is second for psychology. It has a 300-acre campus of short, squat buildings in Bowie, Md., just a 40-minute drive from Washington. The proportion of nonblack students at Bowie State now hovers at around 14 percent. Around 10 percent are white; Hispanic, Asian, and other students make up 4 percent.
Diane Krichmar, who was interviewed while she was the special assistant to the president at Bowie State but has since left the university, is white and a 1975 graduate. She says that both as a student and an administrator at Bowie State, she had her share of unhappy experiences on campus.
“I’ve had students who have been rude to me, and administrators who have pushed too hard because of my race,” she says.
But overall, she adds, the experience of being on an HBCU campus has been good. “I think it must be much harder to be an African-American in a traditional white institution than it is to be white in an HBCU,” she says.
Overall enrollment at Bowie State has been on the increase. According to Donald Kiah, the admissions director, the number of first-time freshmen doubled from 370 in 2000 to 767 in 2003, a result of strong recruitment efforts.
Calvin Lowe, the president of Bowie State, says that improving racial diversity on the campus is important. “Our students are not going to live and work in an all-black environment,” he says, “and it is important that they experience diversity here on campus.”
But a bigger priority, he says, is building strong academic programs and “creating an environment that people want to be part of,” no matter what race they are.
Stephanie Kwader found Bowie State while browsing the Web for schools that had good programs in forensic psychology. The full scholarship she received was more than she could refuse.
For the university, she was a good catch: She graduated at the top of her high school class in 2005 at Elk Lake Junior-Senior High School, in Dimock, Pa., and her combined SAT score of 1210 was well over the 900 minimum sought by Bowie State.
What she didn’t know when she applied is that Bowie State is a historically, and still predominantly, black university. Ms. Kwader says her mother learned that Bowie State was an HBCU while researching the university online after her daughter had been accepted.
Ms. Kwader had doubts, but her mother talked her into enrolling.
“She said it would be a really good opportunity for me to experience new things,” she says, adding that the fact that Bowie State also was offering a free education was a strong selling point.
On her first day of freshman orientation last September, when Ms. Kwader was first interviewed by Education Week, she looked uneasy as she wandered around with another young woman, also a freshman. She recalls that they picked each other out from the crowd because they felt an instant connection—they were both white. Still, on her first day, she was not sure how she would fit in.
“This is a big change for me,” Ms. Kwader said then.
Dimock, with a population of around 1,400, is in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County, nestled near the snow-and-fog-steeped Appalachian mountains, and an hour’s drive from Scranton. Everyone in town pretty much knows everyone else.
Frank Kwader, Stephanie’s father, owns a construction business in the mostly agricultural community. A cheerful man who dotes on his family, Mr. Kwader was born in Dimock but lived for a while in California before he returned home in 1980.
Young people don’t usually move out of Dimock, Mr. Kwader, 50, tells a visiting reporter. Even those who go to college come back home to settle down. Stephanie’s mother, Patricia, 43, was one of them. She runs an accounting business and has lived in Dimock all her life.
In the first few months after starting college, Stephanie Kwader drove five hours home from Bowie State in her black ’98 Saab every weekend to spend time with her parents, her 15-year-old sister, Allison, and her 12-year-old brother, Ben. The separation from her mother was particularly hard, and she was not sure she felt comfortable at college, where making friends seemed to be taking too much effort.
“On another campus, I might have been more comfortable approaching people, but now I wait for others to approach me,” she says.
Stephanie’s parents say they raised her to be colorblind. Even so, Mr. Kwader was a little nervous when they dropped their daughter off at college for the first time.
Dimock is almost all white, “although more Hispanic families are now moving in,” Patricia Kwader points out. At the Elk Lake school district, where Stephanie went to school, just nine of the 1,500 students are African-American. When Stephanie was an Elk Lake Junior-Senior High student, she remembers, there were two black students in the entire school.
At Bowie State, of course, it is Stephanie Kwader who is in the minority.
Ms. Kwader’s college roommate, Lynette Campbell, who is black, remembers how her own mother reacted to her new white friend: “She was like, oh my goodness, you might need to hang out with different people.”
Ms. Campbell, from Baltimore, thought Ms. Kwader was “super-duper proper,” but soon the two freshmen bonded over their shared fears and excitement about being in college. They began to spend time together, and weeks later, Ms. Campbell says, her mother was pleasantly surprised to learn they were getting along great and even helping each other out.
“Now my mother really likes Stephanie—she asks me to advise her to stay safe and not walk around alone on the campus at night,” Ms. Campbell says.
Ms. Kwader’s parents, too, have visited the campus a few times to better get to know their daughter’s new friends. In October, after a homecoming parade she helped organize, they took her and her friends out for dinner.
“She has changed over the last semester,” her mother says. “She is much more independent, more sure of herself.”
Well into her second semester, Ms. Kwader says she is still struggling for acceptance at Bowie State. But she has friends now, many friends, and between social life, a full load of classes, and an evening job at the American Eagle Outfitters store at a nearby mall, she has little time to worry. She is also thinking about the future, and she says she one day hopes to analyze crimes for the FBI.
To an observer, Ms. Kwader seems more at home, a different person from the uneasy woman she was on orientation day in the fall. Her dark-rimmed glasses have been discarded for contact lenses that better show off large, brown eyes. Lounging on a bench at the Student Center, she gets up often to greet or hug friends who walk by. Almost all are black.
“When I saw Stephanie the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, hot white girl!’ ” teases her friend Marcus Brooks, as Ms. Kwader playfully punches him in the side. The two, and their other friends, often argue on subjects ranging from the Iraq war to how to discipline children.
On a more serious note, Mr. Brooks adds: “She’s funny, she’s goofy—and I like her because she’s not afraid to voice her opinion.”
Mr. Brooks, who, like Ms. Kwader, is on a full scholarship, says his friends on campus are mostly African-American, and he wishes there were more diversity. He’d like life at the university to be less of a “segregated experience” and more reflective of the outside world.
He remembers the time he and some other friends made “white jokes” in Ms. Kwader’s presence, upsetting her. But, he adds, he has since been careful to be more sensitive to her feelings.
As for classroom learning here, Ms. Kwader says that, too, has been different for her from what it might have been on another campus.
There was the time her English instructor asked all the students in the class to define black womanhood. It was a perspective, Ms. Kwader says, she couldn’t possibly understand. “I can’t be involved [in the class] if I don’t feel comfortable,” she says.
About three-quarters of the Bowie State faculty is black.
Mr. Kiah, the admissions director, notes that the university offers several courses that focus on African-American history and culture. “We find a large number of other-race students enroll in these classes as well,” he says.
While Ms. Kwader is not enrolled in any of those classes, she says she often finds teachers blend in an African-American perspective while teaching other subjects. She finds it interesting, she says, but somewhat overwhelming at times.
She is keeping open the option of transferring to another college in the future, closer to her hometown. But all in all, she says, she doesn’t regret choosing Bowie State.
“I would say I am happy,” Ms. Kwader says in mid-March. She says she is glad to have been exposed to a culture different in many ways from her own—an experience she would not have had at a majority-white campus.
“I used to regret coming here, initially, but now I don’t,” she says. Being in the minority, she adds, has helped her understand more about the struggles that many black Americans face. It has also taught her that, as someone in the minority, she needs to express herself better and not hesitate before speaking her mind.
“Being here,” she says, “has helped me learn more about myself and what I stand for.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Minority Report