I was attending a high school recruitment event at South Carolina State University with my Mom and knew I would be receiving a full academic scholarship later that day.
For most people, that would have been reason enough to sign on the dotted line. But I was offered scholarships from other universities so I wasn’t by any means stuck on attending State. I had visited other campus, enjoyed my visits, and could see myself attending their respective institutions; however, none of them particularly appealed to my heart enough for me to forsake all others. That all changed when the men of Phi Beta Sigma (the “Sigmas” as I would learn to call them) got on stage, did a step routine, and threw candy into the crowd! SERIOUSLY! CANDY, DUDE!
What really sealed the deal was a speech near the end of the presentation by the Reverend Dr. Willie J. Heggins II ’61. I had never seen a man with such command of a podium…like, ever in my life. His deep voice literally boomed across the auditorium, so much so that I’m pretty sure he could have given that talk without the mic. The only word I could use to describe him was “elegant” and it was the juxtaposition of the fun times (Sigmas/candy) combined with the staunch seriousness of Dr. Heggins’ monologue that help me decide where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life.
I was EXPERIENCING something new, something different and I ate it up. In an hour, I felt more pride in being black than at any other time in my life. At 17 years old, although I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do career wise, I knew that I wanted to be free of the responsibility of being the token black kid in the gifted and talented programs. Having to constantly worry about exceeding the EXCEPTIONS of the stereotypes placed on me because of my ethnic background got old in middle school and I didn’t want to have to keep up during college.
I figured that the only way that could happen is if I attended a HBCU. And why not attend one that gives you free candy (something I would learn that didn’t happen very often unfortunately—yes, I felt bamboozled). Honestly, I wasn’t looking for an education–I was seeking knowledge of a different variety. I was looking for an experience that I would carry for the rest of my life, the so-called “Black Experience” highlighted by black marching bands and re-runs of “A Different World.” One I felt my guidance counselors wanted me to avoid at all cost (at least that’s what the look on their faces suggested when I told them my collegiate decision).
At State, I found that the “Black Experience” is real. The dancing, the stepping, the candy, the parties, the football games, and road trips around like-minded individuals helped me discover a love for my heritage that carry with me to this day.
I consider myself a smart guy, so I could have earned a degree anywhere; but I truly believe that my HBCU story is one of expanded horizons. The experiences—both good and bad—have been an invaluable tool in my maturation process and one that I look to pass down to my as-of-yet unconceived children.
KJ Kearney is a proud 2005 graduate of South Carolina State University, home of the Mighty Bulldogs and the Marching 101. The founder H1GHER LEARNING, the internet’s premier destination dedicated to the intelligent documentation of Streetwear culture, marketing, and branding, he has since shut the site down and is looking to relaunch the brand in a new, community focused direction. He’s also raising funds to get a new cell phone and if you’d like to contribute to that worthy initiative, let him know via Twitteror Instagram but not via Facebook because he rarely checks that thing.