When I was a student at an HBCU in the South, I don’t remember there being a dress requirement. However I do recall receiving a letter from the school telling me what to bring. Among other things, they told me to bring a suit, a tie and a shirt. When I read this along with my dad, I did not think it was strange or unreasonable to bring these items. After all, I had a lot of previous experiences wearing this kind of wardrobe. In my neighborhood in Winston-Salem, N.C., we simply called this wardrobe, “church clothes.”
Back in the day, we wore suits, shirts and ties to church. We didn’t complain about it. That was simply the way it was. When I arrived on campus, I saw all of the other guys with the same kind of garb on so I felt right at home. There were a lot of special programs that we had to wear our dress clothes to in order to get in the door. We had no choice as we had to attend. Put another way, it was wise and prudent that we attended these programs. I really don’t know how they took attendance or better yet how they knew I was present, but my name was always on the list marked “present.” I felt just a bit cool wearing a suit because invariably some teacher would say, “you look sharp.” Receiving this kind of praise from a college teacher was pretty special.
Upon graduating from college and entering graduate school, I had many more chances to wear a suit, so much so that I increased my wardrobe. I felt very comfortable with my graduate colleagues who were from around the country. In addition to high academic acumens, we also shared similar dress and social customs. I give my undergraduate school, Johnson C. Smith University, all the credit for preparing me academically and socially. They got me ready for the “real world.” Yes, I received my bachelor’s degree, but I also received so much more. They gave me a four-year course in etiquette training. They coupled that training with a daily dose of you can achieve and you can distinguish yourself in this world. My story isn’t unique because if you went to an HBCU during my generation you have a similar story. There was something unique about being on an HBCU campus during the sixties and the seventies. You couldn’t quite explain it, yet you felt the transformation happening to you. I can remember coming home for the summer, being there for about a month and being ready to get back to college. Being a college student during this time was, well, priceless!
So we fast forward to today, and we find an interesting mix of students at HBCUs. Many of these schools were established around the same time so their histories are rich. Students come to HBCUs because of their mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Their brothers or sisters attend, their friends attend, so they attend. It is a legacy filled with promise and potential.
While I may get some pushback from this statement, let us continue to encourage our students to dress for success. I still think they need to bring a suit, a shirt and a tie to college. Of course young women should have some dresses and pantsuits in their closet. Edward Waters College, an HBCU located in Jacksonville, Fla., and founded in 1866, actually has a professional dress day, so on Wednesdays students put on their “church clothes.” I am now one of the people saying to students, “you look sharp.” Let us continue to guide our students so that they will not be strangers to appropriate dress that will be their calling card for employment when they graduate. The marketplace demands that students interview a certain way and look a certain way. While some may not agree, these are time-honored traditions, and I don’t see them going away.
Students, I believe, want our instruction, and they want to know that we care about their well-being. It is my strong belief that we have a responsibility to keep our students on the expressway of hope and opportunity.
It is a joy and a privilege that we have to shape and mold the minds and habits of the next generation of leaders. Instilling in them a dress-for-success mindset will give them a good foundation for the future.