'The Black Family's Guide to College Admissions' helps address unique challenges
Right now, high school seniors across the country are gearing up to begin applying to college. They’re meeting with their counselors, scanning ranking lists and even consulting Reddit discussion boards, hoping to pick the right place to spend the next four years.
But the college admissions process can be as stressful as it is long, especially for Black families who often face unique challenges.
Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd is joined by Timothy Fields and Shereem Herndon-Brown, the authors of a new book called “The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation About Education, Parenting, and Race.”
The cover of “The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation About Education, Parenting, and Race.” (Courtesy)
Book excerpt: ‘The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions’
By Timothy Fields and Shereem Herndon-Brown
On a beautiful January day in 2021 in Washington, DC, a small crowd gathered for
the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the forty- sixth president of the United
States. Although this day, in many ways, was overshadowed by the outgoing
president, a tragic domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol earlier that month, and
the continuance of the global pandemic that limited attendance and had taken the
lives of millions worldwide, there was still so much to celebrate on this historic
occasion. With the world watching, we as a country were all able to witness a
peaceful transfer of power with several notable Black figures in the crowd, including
the first female vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, who identifies as
Black and Indian. Vice President Harris is also the first vice president to have
graduated from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Howard
University, the same school that US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had
attended for law school years before and which is less than three miles away from
the Capitol steps where she was sworn in.
On the dais on this momentous occasion were members of Congress, celebrities,
and family members of the elected officials. Among the crowd was the first Black
president, Barack Obama, who started his undergraduate education at Occidental
College and then transferred to Columbia University. (Occidental is a private
predominantly white institution (PWI) in Los Angeles, CA, with 1,839 undergraduates
and no graduate students.) He was joined by his wife, former First Lady Michelle
Obama, who attended Princeton University. Also attending was Congressman Jim
Clyburn, a major catalyst in the election of the new president, donning his South
Carolina State University baseball cap and showing great pride in his home state
and his HBCU alma mater. Many would argue, though, that the climax of the day
was the powerful poem delivered by Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate,
who attended Harvard College. We mention where these individuals went to college
because, for many of us, college is a badge of honor. While there were many others
there that day, we highlight these individuals because of the variety in the
educational choices they made that may have influenced why they were on that
stage on that significant day.
Just as they arrived at their success by different college pathways, many individuals
achieve success without going to a well- known or selective college or without going
to college at all. The goal of most parents is for their children to live healthy lives,
be good citizens, and ultimately become successful, however they may choose to
define it. Some define success by simply being admitted to college; others by
graduating with a college degree and acquiring accolades and titles through their
accomplishments; but most measure success by the amount of money they make.
No matter how success is defined, college is usually a part of that equation, as
evidenced by President Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President
Harris, Congressman Clyburn, and Amanda Gorman. While all of them had different
opportunities and life circumstances that may have influenced where they went to
college, they all decided to go. Despite differences in resources, size, location, and
institutional type, each of the schools offered something that allowed them to grow
and experience success in their careers. Did they know when they chose their
school, with the help maybe of a parent, college counselor, or family friend, that
they would end up on that stage that day as a part of history? Probably not, but the
fact that they attended such different universities says a lot about the unique higher
education system we have in this country, which offers so many opportunities to
students looking for a college education. Such variety is not the case in many parts
of the world.
However great the school they attended, that choice did not determine their
presence on that stage; rather, the key was what they did with the opportunities
afforded to them both in college and beyond. As parents, it is essential that you and
your child understand the choices that are in front of them. Whether they choose to
go to college, aspire to be an artist or athlete, or have entrepreneurial courage and
drive, you know your child best, and as they enter their formative years, you can
probably tell the path they are on, given their abilities, talents, and other
characteristics. College is not for everyone, and the path to and through college can
be difficult. The multiple decisions that go into it, especially for Black families, have
multiple layers that extend beyond simply choosing which college to apply to and
In June of 2020, a few weeks after the tragic slaying of George Floyd, the entire
country was trying to deal with both the tragedy that had occurred in Minneapolis
and the reality that violent racism was
still alive and thriving in America long after the end of segregation. While many
wanted to view what happened to George Floyd as an isolated incident, his death
was one in a long series of unarmed Black people who died at the hands of police.
These deaths provided a reality check and awakening for a country that had turned
a blind eye to injustices for far too long. Throughout the country, people of all
backgrounds took to the streets to protest, signaling that these acts of injustice and
racism could no longer be tolerated.
At the same time that millions were taking to the streets in protest, an online
movement began in Atlanta and quickly spread nationally. Brave young Black
people took to social media to express their anger and frustration at their affluent
private schools for their blatant racism or for being complicit in microaggressions by
white students and faculty. Thanks to the accelerated pace of social media, there
soon were black@insertprivateschool posts from schools across the country that
documented instances of racism against Black students. And it hurt us to read
We are both Black parents, and although we have made different choices about our
children’s schools, all of the six children between us have gone to predominantly
white schools. We attended predominantly white high schools ourselves: public
(Tim) and private (Shereem). The feelings expressed in those Instagram posts, the
fear, anger, and isolation, hit very close to home. As we read the posts of students,
we knew they were giving voice to truths we had known for most of our adult lives.
We also knew that we had to use our voices to amplify theirs and address one of the
most common themes in the posts: college counseling.
Excerpted from The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation about Education, Parenting, and Race. Copyright 2022. Published with permission of
Johns Hopkins University Press.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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