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'Seeing people who look like you:' A Bloomington foundation helps students of color weigh college options

Student speaking at conference
Emily Bollinger
Malika Shelvin attended Normal West high school and spoke to the youth about her time at Tuskegee University.

College-bound Black teens often face starkly different choices in how their lives will move ahead. They can choose to go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) or they can pick an institution that may be a lot closer to home but is a predominantly white institution.

The Jule Foundation of Bloomington is a nonprofit teen enrichment program that provides academic, educational, and mental health support is helping young minority students see what their futures can be.

Jule recently held a teen summit in Bloomington sharing how adults have gone through the choices facing middle and high schoolers as they get ready to go to college.

Regardless of where a young person goes to college, they start out in a new place with no friends. This experience is especially true for students who leave Bloomington-Normal to attend historically Black colleges in other states. Justin Turner of Morehouse College in Georgia said he felt alone when he left his hometown bubble.

college students seated on stage
Emily Bollinger
Left to right: Victoria Coleman, Robert Peacher, Justin Turner, Malika Shelvin, Jasmyn Lawrence, & Kashijion Tate

“In Normal, I felt like I was the main character of my show like, OK, like I run things here. Go right into Atlanta, I'm the side character. I don't know anybody. And I was really nervous my first semester. But the more you get to meet people, it gets better,” Turner said.

Turner said having those connections leads young people to be a better adult.

A lot of high school kids say they think historically Black colleges are too expensive for students interested in pursuing higher education. Not always the case. Jasmyn Lawrence said she graduated debt-free from Tuskegee University in Alabama.

“I went to Tuskegee because I got a scholarship for softball. But Tuskegee is a private school and in women's sports in general, scholarships are not guaranteed, so you have to work towards it,” Lawrence said. “So I didn't just have my softball scholarship, I actually had an academic scholarship, I also joined cross country. I reached out to our alumni because we do have alumni everywhere.”

There are other ways to pay for that kind of experience. Kashijion Tate is a rising senior at Alabama State University.

“I will say that sophomore year is a year where you could sign up to be an RA like me. I'm an RA now, so I get free housing and free food. And then I also got scholarships,” Tate said. “So I don't really have to pay for school. So just find things that will limit spending and costs.”

Many of the Jule Foundation panelists stressed the importance of teachers in talking about their successes. Victoria Coleman, a rising junior at Kentucky State University, was one of them.

“I think what really is that stands out to me is no matter what is that everyone around you wants to excel, everybody wants to graduate, everybody wants to do well in their classes,” Coleman said. “Teachers want you to do well, your administration wants you to do well, your coaches, everybody wants you to excel. At a PWI (predominantly white institution), I don't feel like teachers and faculty kind of pay attention to that, because the class sizes are a lot larger. Like for me, my class sizes are like 15 to 20 people."

Some advocates say historically Black institutions foster an important sense of identity.

NBC's 'Chicago PD' star LaRoyce Hawkins spoke at the Jule Foundation's 1st Teen Summit.
Emily Bollinger
NBC's 'Chicago PD' star LaRoyce Hawkins spoke at the Jule Foundation's 1st Teen Summit.

Ian Brock is the founder of Dream Hustle Code. It's a nonprofit that teaches kids about computer programming. Brock said he thinks it’s important for African Americans to go to HBCUs, because it gives them an opportunity to see something outside of their communities yet retain their identity.

“I understand the value of going to an HBCU, seeing people who look like you,” Brock said. “Seeing people who come from your circumstances, but also seeing people who are striving to become the best versions of themselves, that really inspires people to really want to go reach and achieve for something greater than themselves.”

When asked about what advice he’d give his younger self, Brock said don’t be afraid.

“When I was younger, I let fear hold me back. Whether it was fear of failure, fear of how other people might view me, or sometimes even fear of success or what was going to happen,” Brock said. “I feel like a lot of people can relate to that because that unsureness of what's going to happen in the future, whether it'll work out or not, holds a lot of people back. So just going after it, because that (fear) is one of the biggest setbacks for people. It holds them back from reaching those greater heights and becoming the best versions of themselves.”

While a nearby predominantly white institution might be an easier, closer, less expensive, and even OK choice, Jule Foundation panelists and supporters say historically black colleges nurture the identities of young Black scholars.

Amina Jinadu is a social media and online writing intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She began working at WGLT in summer 2019.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.