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The HBCU Experience

August 15, 2022 | By Tamara K. Taylor, Charles Jennings, and Christy Dunston OP ED

Two HBCU graduates smile for a photo on graduation day.

TAGS: diversity and inclusion, journal,

NACE Journal / August 2022

Three members of NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group share their thoughts about and personal experiences with HBCUs.

Tamara K. Taylor: Excellence With Caring

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have seen a surge of attention over the past few years, and the “HBCU experience” has been prominently featured on national platforms.

While the greatness of the HBCU experience has existed for 185 years, since the founding of the first HBCU—Cheyney University in Pennsylvania—the recent attention has resulted in millions in donations as well as greater interest in recruiting HBCU students by organizations that previously did not engage with our campuses.

Career centers taking part in the NACE HBCU Affinity Group have reported seeing an uptick in the number of organizations seeking access to our students. On the surface, that sounds wonderful; unfortunately, the reality expressed by many members was that some organizations expected immediate access, failing to understand that they needed to put in the work. For example, there were organizations that thought sending an email to an already overwhelmed staff was enough and would spur immediate action on the part of the career center. Unfortunately, the unintended message they sent was that career centers should be grateful for their outreach and, worse, that career center staff were sitting around with nothing else to do. What really was disheartening were the stories of recruiters forgoing the career center and contacting faculty or worse, reaching out to university presidents to complain that the career center was not responding to them fast enough.

Employers need to understand that HBCUs are relational—community is central to the HBCU experience. Failing to establish a relationship with the career center is likely not going to help the organization recruit HBCU students. Additionally, our work extends not only to students and recruiters but to our deans, vice president, and president. We lead non-career center initiatives, teach classes, advise student organizations, travel with student leaders, and more. We are inclusive of the HBCU experience, which is why our students, faculty, and administrators know and trust us. So, what is the HBCU experience?

Not Just for Students

During my 13-year tenure working at an HBCU—Fayetteville State University (FSU)—I failed to see that the HBCU experience is applicable to professional staff as well.

As an HBCU graduate, I knew the HBCU experience very well but only attributed it to my four life-transforming years at Florida A&M University (FAMU). The HBCU experience is often associated with the undergraduate years of those who attend institutions of higher learning with this federal designation. Ask any alumnus about the HBCU experience and you will receive verbal and non-verbal responses tied to challenging curriculum, culture, identity, history, pride, belonging, family, generational legacy, womanhood, manhood, and so much more. There is no one word or non-verbal expression that can define it. The experience is sacred and respectful of one’s ancestors. It can’t be put into mere words: If you don’t know, you simply don’t know.

But, as I reflect over my 20-year career in higher education, I can now attest that the HBCU experience is not just for undergraduates—it is for higher education professionals as well. Everything that was poured into me during my undergraduate years on the highest of seven hills in Tallahassee, Florida, is ever-present in my work with students. I had no idea what to expect when I began my higher education journey. My jobs leading up to my position at FSU were in marketing, journalism, and sports, and I was not sure how they would merge into my first role at a four-year institution. I did know, however, that everything would be just fine, because my new career was starting at an HBCU. I was giving back as close to what was given to me, but I did not possess a roadmap for the journey. There was no GPS to tell me what was ahead or a virtual assistant that I could trust to give me the right answer. All I had was the FAMU motto of “Excellence with Caring” and the memories and emotions wrapped in that to guide me in developing the next generation of leaders.

During my HBCU tenure, I touched the lives of thousands of students. I had productive relationships with faculty, professional staff, and university administrators. I had connections, and people trusted me to support or deliver according to their needs. My reputation was solid, and I loved serving on various committees and having my hands in a variety of projects for the betterment of our students and the institution. I was seen and heard. Respected and uplifted. I felt connected to the university’s mission and established authentic relationships, which is so central on an HBCU campus and to the experience. Providing holistic student development support and activities was essential to my success, and taking the time to learn each student afforded me access, particularly at critical times, to be transformational in my student engagements. It felt like I knew everybody and everybody knew Ms. Taylor (that is what the students called me). More students knew me than it was possible for me to know because my reputation among them was a direct result of my efforts to exemplify “Excellence with Caring.”

I was trusted on the campus. I fought for and alongside students. I gave them a voice and offered correction and guidance with love and accountability. I was a safe space without judgment, and revered in a way that kept me humble. I knew my students better than they knew themselves. I was responsible for creating equity in access. For connecting students from rural North Carolina to opportunities yet to be explored. For encouraging high-achieving students to push themselves even more, and for working directly with faculty and administrators to prepare our students for the outcomes we all desired. I still remember a conversation with a faculty colleague in which he brought to my attention the countless number of undergraduate and graduate students I had helped to that point. We discussed my campus involvement and touchpoints with other faculty and department chairs as well as my work with orientation and student athletes. I never really thought about my total experience until he mentioned it. In my mind, I was upholding the responsibility of “each one, teach one.” Because of my approach to working with students, I was often referred to as a second mother or favorite aunt. (A favorite cousin was more to my liking because mother and aunt added more years to my age than I want to own.) As HBCU graduates, we are taught that not one of us is bigger than the community as a whole, and it is our responsibility to reach back and pull forward.

We Are Transformative and Not Transactional

HBCU career centers build relationships with employers, which is why our presidents, board of trustees, students, and faculty trust that we are inviting organizations into a sacred space.

I can recall the organizations I had the most success with at FSU—those that invested time in working with our office and learning more about our students, faculty, curriculum, and ways in which they could contribute. These were talent acquisition professionals who demonstrated an interest in supporting a student body they could eventually recruit. It was easy to encourage students to consider their organizations because we knew their processes, culture, and potential career trajectories for our students. They provided insight on their recruitment process and shared feedback that we could offer students and faculty. They wanted to be in the classroom but not with a sales pitch. They wanted to sit with faculty and deans to learn the curriculum and not make assumptions about it. They created interview questions that highlighted our career centers. They were our cheerleaders and ensured they kept us abreast of internship and job openings, as well as company updates that were significant to our work. They were friendly, engaging, and supportive to the point of depositing more than withdrawing. They wrote the chancellor and vice chancellor in praise of our work, commitment, and hospitality. They were comfortable sharing areas of concern, while also giving us the best swag. We were partners because all parties were invested in our students.

Employers need to understand that working with career centers is more advantageous than trying to skip them. We are a central figure on our campuses with universal trust. We know nearly everyone because we are one big family. Yes, we are career coaches but most importantly, we are life coaches. We make sure our students are more than just career ready, but equipped with confidence for the life they will embark on.

The HBCU experience cannot be replicated or duplicated, nor should it be misinterpreted or falsely labeled. We’ve been doing this work since 1837. HBCUs are the creators and sustainers of the Black middle class and home to many responsible for the civil rights of Black Americans. We have law and medical schools, and are the top producers of Black educators, doctors, judges, engineers, and other scientific and technological professionals.1 Vice President Kamala Harris is not an outlier. She is because of her HBCU experience that she proudly shares with any audience. She had at least one surrogate—likely more—who invested in her during her time at Howard, who instilled in her the belief that what was to come (but likely hard to see at the time) was rightfully hers. That is what we do as surrogates and what makes the HBCU experience so meaningful for us.

HBCUs are 101 strong. There is no rival to our dedication in preparing tomorrow’s leaders.


1 Thurgood Marshall College Fund. About HBCUs. Retrieved from www.tmcf.org/about-us/member-schools/about-hbcus/.

Charles Jennings: A Spiritual Calling

Luke 12:48 states, “To whom much is given, much is required.” When I first heard that scripture while in college, I could not see how it would apply to my life nor did I embrace the power of its meaning.

When I chose to attend the University of Georgia (UGA), I did it for two reasons: 1) The university had one of the best journalism schools in the country and I chose to be a telecommunications major because of my interest in film and television, and 2) I wanted to stretch myself and step outside of my comfort zone by attending a university that was not that close to home and one that numerous members of my high school class decided not to attend. My time at UGA was phenomenal because of the friendships that I made, the experiences that I encountered, and the person that I became due to personal growth and development.

One of the most profound experiences that I had during my time there was serving as a student employee in the Office of Minority Services and Programs. What made my time in that office so amazing was the relationship that I established with the three major staff members of the department—Dr. Leslie K. Bates, who was director at the time; Vanessa Williams-Smith, who was associate director; and Joi L. Bostic, director of the African-American Cultural Center. The unique aspect about my engagement with them was that they were not only my supervisors but also personal and professional mentors who became an extension of my family. As the saying goes, “representation matters,” and this was a pivotal point during my matriculation—to be consistently in the company of three professionals on the campus who looked like me and made a lasting impression on my life. Dr. Bates took on the father role by setting the example for what I could become. I grew up with my Dad in my household, but Dr. Bates was the first Black male who I watched coming to work everyday in a suit with a briefcase (Dad’s job had him wearing khakis and polo shirts to work). Joi was the big sister/aunt figure that you loved sharing a good laugh with but who also provided you with good advice regarding important matters. Vanessa was that campus mother who consistently provided nurturing guidance by connecting you with necessary resources and ensuring that you were taking care of yourself. My last two years at the university were definitely impactful because of those individuals.

First Professional Role

Once I graduated from college and entered the professional world, I was fortunate enough to work at organizations in which I was afforded the opportunity to be supervised by Black males (three in total). Each one of them had a significant influence on me and contributed much into the professional that I would become. When I started my first job at a university in 2014, my purpose behind stepping into the role was to prevent students from making the same mistake that I made as an undergraduate by neglecting the career center. The interesting feature about the institution that I worked at was that the majority of the student body were students of color. I advised and assisted every student who walked through the door, but the primary audience was Black students. Also, the vast majority of the student workers in the career center were Black. I also became involved with two mentoring programs on campus that placed four Black male students in my life. As time progressed, my relationship with my mentees and student workers continued to elevate to another level as they sought my counsel on more personal matters. I was no longer being regarded as just their career adviser but as someone who they could confide in and receive sound advice from. While my role with the students continued to change, they also began to share more intimate details of their lives, sometimes even sharing things with me that they had not even shared with their parents. Because of those factors, my purpose behind doing this work took on another meaning than when I first entered the profession.

Moving Into “a Different World”

As I transitioned from the University of Baltimore to Tennessee State University, I was extremely excited for the new opportunity. The experience I had at the University of Baltimore in developing close relationships with the Black students was the motivating factor behind my decision to work at Tennessee State. Of course, I did not have an HBCU experience as an undergraduate student, and the only impression that I really had was from growing up watching the television show A Different World. I thoroughly enjoyed the family atmosphere portrayed on the show, particularly the connection between the students and the college’s professional staff members, and wanted to have that same type of experience with my new role.

My time at Tennessee State was life-changing: The connections between the students and myself reached a height beyond what I had experienced at my previous institution. It was quite an experience to be in an atmosphere in which I consistently interacted with Black students on a regular basis. I was transforming from a career adviser to the various students into a surrogate father and uncle for them. Hearing Darius calling me his “other Dad,” Autumn calling me “Uncle J,” and Javonte calling me “Pops” were truly remarkable moments for me—I was thrilled to be regarded in such a high honor by the students that I served. Being in a position in which the students confided in me regularly was meaningful; you don’t realize that you desire to feel needed until you are actually needed by others. The more I was granted such experiences, the more apparent it became that my purpose in higher education was being fulfilled.

It is that type of relationship with our students that causes a number of us to be so protective of them in their involvement with employer partners. Similar to how we support and nurture them during the time that we spend with them at their respective HBCU, we also want to ensure that the environment of the company that they are going to intern and/or work for is one that will not only contribute to their professional growth but also their personal development. Because we know our students so well, it is just as important to us that we have a deep connection with our employer partners. The partnership between employers and HBCU career centers can be a beneficial one in which each party works in unison: If employer partners invest much time and energy in building a substantial relationship with the career center staff, staff in turn will advocate for the company with the students. It is also important that companies understand that the students rely heavily upon the advice and guidance of their career center “family” so employers should be mindful that they also seek our counsel for their employment decisions. Please be considerate of the great resource that we are for each of you.

From HBCU to the Ivy League

When I transitioned from Tennessee State University to Princeton University, my motive behind accepting the position at the renown Ivy League institution was two-fold. First, I wanted to serve as an example for the students I had become close with at Tennessee State. I was constantly talking to them about combatting imposter syndrome and how they should always apply for the big jobs, because they are more than qualified for those positions. As a first-generation college graduate like most of them, I wanted to show that if I could do it, so could they.

Second, as I noted earlier, “representation matters.” From viewing Princeton’s staff directory page, I saw that there was not a Black member of the career advising and employer engagement teams, and I wanted to change that. I strongly felt that the Black students at Princeton needed someone to turn to in that office and that I should fill that role. My feelings were validated when I received an invitation to speak at the National Society of Black Engineers chapter meeting after being at Princeton for only three months—the chapter president saw me on the Princeton website and reached out.

I enjoyed my time at Princeton, but I did not know that I was going to encounter the challenges that I did in that role. This was my first time in my career that I was ever the only Black male in the office, which gave rise to my own imposter syndrome feelings as well as to struggles to be my authentic self. To top it all off, my interaction with Black students took a drastic downward spiral compared with what I encountered at my previous institutions. That issue alone took an emotional toll on my spirit, because the lack of engagement sometimes affected my drive. The scenario of going from an institution in which I dealt with Black students on a daily basis to only dealing with them once or twice a month was a very hard pill to swallow. I came up with the idea to take the Center for Career Development to where the students are and host office hours within the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality & Cultural Understanding. My executive director was definitely on board with the idea; unfortunately, this never came to fruition because the pandemic shut down all in-person operations at the time.

Returning to the HBCU Environment

In the beginning of 2020, there was not only the coronavirus pandemic that was plaguing the nation but there was also the reemergence of racial injustice with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

There is much that can be discussed about all of the feelings that I went through regarding those incidents and how they affected my demeanor at work, but I want to focus just on how they changed me as a person. I came away from those experiences with the clear understanding that I could no longer work in that environment because I was not being fulfilled. Have you ever been to your favorite restaurant and ordered one of your favorite dishes, but you were not satisfied after you left? That is how I was feeling about my job. No matter how much I enjoyed working with my colleagues at Princeton and the students—and I did establish good relationships with a few Black students—it was not enough. The next step for my career had to be either back at an HBCU or working for an organization whose programs and services centered on HBCU students. I achieved that: I am currently the director of the Career and Professional Development Center at North Carolina Central University.

I have realized that my purpose in life is to work in higher education, but my passion that goes along with my purpose is to work with Black students. Reflecting back on Luke 12:48, I recognize that Dr. Bates, Vanessa, Joi, and my three Black male supervisors invested a lot of time and energy in me, and so it is now my responsibility to do the same for the students who I come in contact with. This is so much more than a paycheck or a job for me. It is, in my opinion, truly the reason why I was placed upon this world. I deeply love the work that I do and will continue to serve these students to the best of my ability!

Christy Dunston: We’re a Family

Christy Dunston’s path to HBCUs began at predominately white institutions (PWIs). She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at PWIs, and her first job out of graduate school was at a PWI.

“The position provided me with lots of professional development, and my supervisors really pushed me toward that,” she says.
When she joined, the office had three Black counselors but got up to five—“a pretty big number,” she says. “I saw everyone but found that the Black students tended to gravitate to the Black counselors.”

Overall, she says, “it was a good environment, but something was missing.”

She found that missing piece at HBCUs. Currently at  North Carolina A&T State University—her second professional experience at an HBCU—Dunston characterizes the HBCU environment as having a “family feel.”

“A student at North Carolina Central named me ‘Auntie.’ The first time a student comes to the office, it might be for help with a resume; after that, they just stop by my office—whether I’m in the middle of something or not—and sit down and start talking,” she says.

That is not just Dunston’s experience. “Everyone here has an open-door policy,” she notes, with students interacting with staff for both career and non-career advice and guidance.

“They feel like they can come in and talk about anything, like you do with family. I didn’t experience that at the PWI,” Dunston explains.

In Dunston’s experience, “we’re family” is the HBCU experience, setting HBCUs and their students, staff, and faculty apart from others. “It’s the same message across the board,” she notes. “For students, it starts at orientation. The historical culture is brought to the student. It’s a very different feeling from what you get at other types of schools.”

The HBCU experience nurtures, encourages, and instills confidence in the student, according to Dunston. “It’s a supportive family. You can never have too many people who support you. For the student, there are all these people who want to see them succeed.”

As a result of that nurturing environment, Dunston finds that HBCU students “are very ambitious. They want to excel. They want to contribute to society.”

Dunston says that employers need to recognize that HBCUs really are like families—with an emphasis on relationships—but are different families. “You can’t assume one HBCU is like another. They are all different, just as families are different,” she explains. Dunston recommends that employers learn the culture of each campus to be effective.

She also encourages employers to listen to students. “They are great students. I appreciate being around them—they tell me things I’ve never thought about. Employers should be open to what students have to say.”

In addition, she reminds employers to “give students some grace. Students don’t know what they don’t know. Similar to many other students in college, most haven’t been in a corporate or nonprofit workplace, so they need some grace. They can be taught.”

Dunston values the relationships she has been able to build with students as well as her relationships with HBCU staff and faculty. “We’re all moving toward the same goal. At my school, we have a small team—small but mighty.”

Tamara K. TaylorTamara K. Taylor is interim director of career education and senior assistant director for career coaching and student belonging at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously, she served at Fayetteville State University, including as the coordinator of student professional development and employer relations. She holds a master’s degree from University of Miami and bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University. Taylor is a fifth generation FAMU Rattler and Floridian. She began serving as a co-lead for NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group in 2021-22 and will continue in that role for 2022-23.

Charles JenningsCharles Jennings, GCDF, is the director of the Career and Professional Development Center at North Carolina Central University. Previously, he served as senor associate director of employer engagement at Princeton University; as director of the Career Development Center at Tennessee State University; and as associate director for employer relations at University of Baltimore. He earned his undergraduate degree at University of Georgia. Jennings is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator. A member of NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group, Jennings co-chaired the Employer Membership Identification Task Force in 2021-22 and served as a co-lead for the People of Color Affinity Group from 2019 through 2021.

Christy DunstonChristy Dunston is associate director of career counseling programs at North Carolina A&T State University. Previously, she served as employer relations manager at North Carolina Central University and as assistant director at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began her career as an elementary school teacher. Dunston holds a master’s degree in education, college counseling, from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s of science in elementary education from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a member of NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group.

Tamara Taylor serves as the senior assistant director for career coaching and student belonging and works with all students and managing the Career Peer program. Her career in higher education includes acknowledgments as a committed advocate in helping students see that the ‘impossible’ is possible. A fifth generation Floridian, Tamara earned her B.S. from Florida A&M University and M.S.Ed. from the University of Miami.

Charles Jennings, GCDF, is the director of the Career and Professional Development Center at North Carolina Central University. Previously, he served as senor associate director of employer engagement at Princeton University; as director of the Career Development Center at Tennessee State University; and as associate director for employer relations at University of Baltimore. He earned his undergraduate degree at University of Georgia. Jennings is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator. A member of NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group, Jennings co-chaired the Employer Membership Identification Task Force in 2021-22 and served as a co-lead for the People of Color Affinity Group from 2019 through 2021.

Christy Dunston is associate director of career counseling programs at North Carolina A&T State University. Previously, she served as employer relations manager at North Carolina Central University and as assistant director at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began her career as an elementary school teacher. Dunston holds a master’s degree in education, college counseling, from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s of science in elementary education from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a member of NACE’s HBCU Affinity Group.