Historically Black colleges and universities have always been places that encourage greater diversity when it comes to higher education, both on their campuses and in the greater college landscape. From their origins as being the only places people of color could go for a college education to their role today as welcoming all students and instilling cultural awareness, HBCUs stand as models of multicultural learning at its best.
Are HBCUs doing enough to prepare their students for the real workplace, though?
The reason so many college administrators, myself included, stand firmly by the necessity of HBCUs in contemporary college education is this: HBCUs provide a heightened diversity-centric environment that is not able to be duplicated in other settings. This is why these schools are so fantastic. But is all that idealism blindsiding our students later on? Do HBCUS give students a false sense of what to expect in the real workplace? There has to be a blending of what is actually happening in the workplace with what the ideal can be with the right people who work for it.
So how can HBCUs promote diversity while still preparing their students for the reality of the American workplace today?
Tell the truth
Start with the facts of the workplace reality right now, today, this moment. This is so vital to students’ understanding of what they are going to face in the workplace. Yes, diversity is increasing in most fields (thanks in part to better college recruiting and minority programs) but things like the wage gap between minorities (including women) and White men have to be addressed. It’s okay to present these facts and not have a concrete solution in place. It is the responsibility of HBCUs to let their students know what they are up against — and inspire these students to make changes when given the opportunity.
Instead of teaching our students how to work for someone else, we should be training them to be leaders. This is true in every field and in every classroom. Have a group of education students? Encourage them to take that next step and become administrators. Students in health care? Set them up to be accepted to medical school. If you have a class of students who are interested in computer science, suggest pairing it with a business or entrepreneurship double major or minor. We should show our students the path to the next level, one step above what they are hoping to achieve, so that they can become the diverse decision-makers of tomorrow’s workplace.
Teach legal rights
Our students should know what the boundaries are in workplaces when it comes to discrimination and how to recognize unfair treatment. We need to tell them how to report it, file lawsuits and hold their employers (or potential employers) accountable. At the same time, we should be sure our students aren’t wasting too much time in their careers looking for problems. It is important to know when something is unfair, but to put energy into building up careers for their benefit, too.
As cheesy as it may sound, an education is everything when it comes to breaking through workplace barriers. Minorities and women have to work twice or three times as hard as their peers to earn as much respect and money in the same roles. It’s not fair, but it is a fact — at least at this point in our country’s history as an economic powerhouse. What is learned in classrooms can’t be taken away or denied. We have to encourage our students to be lifelong learners and love knowledge for the sake of it. That excitement about learning is what will keep them ahead in their fields and help them impart that empowerment to the next generation of students.
There is no way to completely change diversity in the workplace overnight but I truly believe that HBCU graduates have the best shot at improving it significantly. As instructors and administrators, we need to make sure our students are taking the best of diversity practices with them when they leave our campuses, but not entering the American workforce completely blind to its realities. It is our responsibility to teach our students what they can expect, but also how to be the change that they want to see.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is dean of the School of Education, Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies and an associate professor of education at Virginia Union University.