This year, Howard University celebrates its 150th anniversary as the most comprehensive historically black college and university (HBCU) in the country. Offering degrees in medicine, law, arts, sciences, and humanities, Howard attracts talented students to its rich history, academic excellence, and African American immersion experience.
Many of its students are legacies and have dreamed of coming to the school since they were children, hoping to join the ranks of famous alumni like Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison and Taraji Henson. Just two miles from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Howard’s social justice mission is also a significant draw for students, many of whom enter government, law, teaching and advocacy.
As teens and young adults, Howard students experience the same emotional and behavioral issues that all American college kids face – homesickness, stress, relationship issues, substance abuse. But as HBCU students at a particularly polarizing time in our country, they have a unique set of health and wellness issues that the school is working hard to address.
60 percent of Howard students are Pell grant-eligible. Their SAT scores parallel those of peers at highly competitive schools across the country, giving Howard the reputation as a school for high-achieving, low-income students of color. This is a profile that is sought after by diversity-conscious, prestigious institutions everywhere.
Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick wants high-performing Black students to choose Howard for reasons beside its comforting environment where students and professors reflect their race and culture.
“No one does it better than we do when it comes to sending African American students to graduate programs or into the workforce,” said Frederick. “We have produced more Black physicians than any academic institution in the country.”
Frederick, who is a physician and an alumni from Howard, says that unlike many schools, Howard doesn’t just admit Black students, it sticks with them. One of Frederick’s top priorities since becoming president in 2015 is to better support students financially by adopting an innovative approach to degree completion. Examples include combining courses to allow for additional credits, expanding the amount of credits students can take, and adding a robust, year-round academic calendar that allows many students to graduate within a shorter time frame.
“All of the focus on affordability has been on loans and that’s a part of it but we need to talk about innovative ways to cut down on the student’s financial burden,” said Frederick, who thinks this kind of system innovation can save students as much as 25 percent on their tuition bill.
A Community Concern
Student health, and addressing the unique physical, behavioral, and emotional needs of Black students, is another, major priority for Frederick and something he views as an additional advantage for Howard. His position is both personal and professional.
Frederick, who grew up in Trinidad, has sickle cell anemia. His mother said that if he wanted to study in a foreign country, it would need to be at Howard, which has a sickle cell anemia center.
“We want health and wellness here to be just as important as what you learn in the classroom and we need to apply that same sense of rigor to it,” he said. “We are constantly asking ourselves: Are we offering enough healthy choices in our dining halls? Are we doing all we can to promote exercise?”
Frederick is particularly concerned about students’ emotional and behavioral health, and believes Howard, and schools everywhere, need to take more of a preventative approach. The school is working hard on the front end, trying to do more screening to better understand the problems students are arriving with. A major target is overcoming stigma about mental health, which remains a problem in the African American community and in the cultures of many of their international students.
“We don’t talk about mental illness in the ways that we need to,” he said. “We treat it differently than we do physical ailments, but just like having sickle cell, someone can have a major depression. We need to embrace the challenge by talking more openly about it.”
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Steve Fund and the Jed Foundation, “African American students are more likely than Caucasian students to say they tend to keep their feelings about the difficulty of college to themselves. (75 percent vs. 61 percent.) Among the barriers to seeking help, students reported “stigma and fear of what their family and community would think.”
“Historically, people just never talked about mental health in the African American community,” said Kenneth Holmes, Howard’s Vice President for Student Affairs, who points to assimilation factors as one of the reasons. He hopes to increase help-seeking behaviors with better communication on campus.
Holmes, with strong backing from Frederick, has made a significant effort to better support LGBTQ students, who he also believes have been impacted by a lack of acknowledgement within the African American community.
“We have students who are just coming out now that they are in college, and we have to make sure they are getting the support they need,” Holmes said.
Dr. Ayana Watkins-Northern runs Howard’s well-regarded Counseling Center, which is staffed by several psychologists and a psychiatrist and benefits from close proximity to Howard’s hospital. She, like most of her peers, is seeing an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety, depression and stress-related illnesses.
She says that there are fewer reported incidences of eating disorders at Howard compared to non-HBCUs and there may be fewer cases of sexual violence reported than expected at Howard compared to other schools.
Substance abuse is “alive and well,” primarily alcohol and marijuana. She thinks more permissive marijuana laws, including legalization in the District of Columbia, has impacted prevalence as well as confusion.
Watkins-Northern and Holmes both believe that Black students face unique stressors that, in any individual, can lead to mental health problems. These include persistent exposure to prejudice, a higher likelihood to have experienced trauma, and financial anxiety. Tragic incidences like the death of Trayvon Martin and other high-profile police violence cases have caused increased anxiety among Black students.
Watkins-Northern says the Black Lives Matter movement, while empowering, gives a voice to heightened concern over racism that today’s students are less familiar with and notes this can trigger a depressive response in students who are predisposed.
Socio-economic stressors as well as many socio-political challenges faced by Howard students are major contributors to life-long mental health risks, according to Watkins-Northern. She also describes the early separation of parent and child caused by the demands of the work force as a contributor to mental health concerns.
“Many of our students come here to avoid the same economic and social plight of their families but often are still worried sick they can’t stay, or even survive, based on the internalization of these challenges,” she said.
Group therapy has been especially effective at Howard in addressing these types of concerns, said Watkins-Northern.
“It allows them to see that other people are experiencing similar problems. You’re not so different and you’re not alone.”
Activism in an uncertain time
Howard’s current students were only in grade school when the first African American family moved into the White House. President Frederick says his young children, “have never known a president to be other than Black.”
But these same students may have a new appreciation for the civil rights movement of their grandparents as they struggle with the racial overtones of the 2016 presidential campaign and the racist rhetoric of a re-energized white supremacy movement that has been active on college campuses.
Student leaders at all HBCU’s have expressed concern over their administrations’ cooperation with President Trump and his ultra-conservative team at the White House. President Frederick attended an early meeting with Trump and newly appointed Education Secretary Betsy Devos in what Ken Holmes said was an expression of cooperation regarding the federal government’s role in higher education funding.
The students, however, were not pleased and joined peers throughout the country in vehemently opposing any association of HBCU’s with the Trump administration.
Holmes believes administrators are more on the same page with the students than they think. He and Frederick have held several meetings on the subject with student leaders from Howard, as well as other schools in the District.
“The students are telling us they want to understand our view point,” he said. “What they really want to know is, ‘Do we share their passion on these issues?’ The answer is, ‘We do.’”
As Howard embarks on its next 150 years, how the institution and its students relate to the world around them remains a grounding principle. In acknowledging the advantages that Howard students have in attending a predominantly Black institution, Frederick says his goal for students is to prepare them well for the environment they will join once they leave.