3 KIPP Foundation Staff Reflect On Their Life Changing HBCU Experience

It’s not just our KIPP students and alumni who have benefited from HBCUs. KIPP has many HBCU alumni among our teachers, leaders, and staff! We spoke with three KIPP Team & Family members about their experiences attending HBCUs, and their advice for KIPP juniors and seniors who might be considering these schools.

HBCU Blog Collage

College decision time is here! Throughout the month of May (and beyond), we’re celebrating our seniors. As in years past, many of our graduating KIPPsters have decided to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The data is clear: HBCUs can help KIPP alumni feel a sense of belonging on campus, which in turn produces better graduation outcomes. 

And it’s not just our KIPP students and alumni who have benefited from HBCUs. KIPP has many HBCU alumni among our teachers, leaders, and staff! We spoke with three KIPP Team & Family members about their experiences attending HBCUs, and heard their advice for KIPP juniors and seniors who might be considering these schools:


Sheila Matthews 

Social Media Associate, KIPP Foundation 

Bowie State University  


John Alford 

Chief Growth Officer, KIPP Foundation 

North Carolina A&T State University  


Ajuah Helton 

National Director of KIPP Through College, KIPP Foundation 

Clark Atlanta University  


Why did you choose to attend an HBCU? 

JA: A friend told me that North Carolina A&T graduated the most Black engineers in the country. I told him, “Get out of here.” I just did not believe him. I was really skeptical of HBCUs…I joined him on a visit and everything he was telling me, about the community and the support, it finally clicked for me and I just had the best time…I’d never been in a world like that, where there were so many smart, hardworking, and supportive people that looked like me. It just felt like home. 

AH: I visited Clark Atlanta junior year and thought, “Ah, this is the feeling. This is what I have in my mind.” I…came back home to my mom and said, Clark Atlanta is the place.” 

SM: “I didn’t choose Bowie State, Bowie State chose me.” That was the narrative for a lot of students there. My plan was to go there for a semester and then transfer…I loved it. I got involved. I met a lot of great people and became a family. Bowie made me stay. 

What experiences from undergrad are seared in your memory? 

SM: Homecoming’s a big party…a celebration of Black excellence. 

JA: Homecoming. You could just see the outpouring of love. Our Homecoming is called the Greatest Homecoming on Earth…people that attend A&T, and many HBCUs, we all come back for Homecoming. 

AH: Homecoming was just such a touchstone. To come back and celebrate, to see what’s happening on campus, to support young alumni events…every year, no matter what was going on, whether I was flush with cash or whether I was a struggling grad student, I got back to CAU for homecoming. 

What leadership opportunities did you have as a student? 

JA: I ran for VP of External Affairs in Student Government Association. Campaigning, knocking on doors, putting my face on flyers is something I would have NEVER done previously and probably would not have done at a Predominantly White Institution. That helped me get out of my introverted shell some and was a huge confidence-booster. 

AH: I was an orientation guide. So I got to usher prospective freshmen onto campus, give campus tours, and also lead all the freshman orientation activities. I spent four years doing that. I was [named female leader of the year, one year, because of my campus leadership, which was awesome. And it really validated my belief in myself and my belief in my ability to lead. 

SM: I served in the Student Government Association at Bowie. I was Miss Freshmen, Miss Sophomore, Miss Junior and Miss Bowie State. I was the only person in 70 years to do all four in a row-but it was the best experience ever being able to host programs for the women on campus, in my class and I was the liaison between the faculty. 

What do you think is the most powerful thing about the HBCU experience? 

SM: I felt I finally was seen. I finally was encouraged by professors. When I felt I couldn’t do it, they motivated me. From day one, I felt empowered to make my own decisions and follow what I love and what I know I’m good at. I was encouraged to learn. That form of empowerment…is something I’d never experienced [before]. 

AH: It was certainly eye-opening for me. I was used to being a smart kid in class, but you don’t know scholarship until you’ve been to a great Black college and get to see professors who look like you. 

JA: In a way, it’s like, “Okay, this must be how white people feel every day.” Except for us, it feels ten times better, because we don’t get to do this in every instance…I think that really, when you’re in the minority…you question your belonging. You question whether you should speak up now…Being on campus, [seeing] other students work hard—I mean, I took [classes} all the way to Calculus III and Thermodynamics. We had to rally as a unit to help each other survive and pass our classes. We all said “We belong. We’re doing this”. 

What misconceptions do people have about HBCUs? 

JA: My guidance counselor, when I told him I was applying to A&T, refused to sign a letter of recommendation because he told me it wasn’t a real college and he didn’t believe in HBCUs. That hurt deep. I literally had to go to another teacher to get my letter of recommendation signed…I’m really passionate about making sure that kids […are] getting a positive and truthful story about the benefit of HBCUs. 

AH: I think that some folks believe HBCUs are not as relevant for students who attended majority-Black schools for K-12, and in fact that the experience can be limiting because it would not be “diverse”. For me, it was uplifting to witness Black excellence and scholarship. It’s also really affirming to learn in an identity-safe place. Also, the diversity of thought within Black students and professors from many walks of life can be really inspirational. 

SM: The high school that I went to, they actually discouraged us from going to HBCUs. But when you really go down the lineage of these schools and who came from them, it’s a lot of household names. Oprah, Tennessee State University. Taraji P. Henson, Howard University…My encouragement is, don’t [limit yourself] based off of what you might see, what you might read online. Pick what’s best for you. 

What advice do you have for rising juniors and seniors who are considering HBCUs? 

AH: Make the best choice for yourself. Do your research. There are such amazing strengths in HBCUs…there are schools that are 20,000 students and schools that are 800 students…You can be as far west as Texas, all the way up to Philly…It’s going to be a wild ride. You’re going to have so many opportunities to meet folks who look like you, or smarter than you, who have done things you haven’t done before. And to just really broaden your mind and your experience about who we as African Americans really are. 

JA: Keep up with your classmates. They’re going to do big things… There are many HBCU grads teaching in many of our KIPP regions. Speak to anyone who went to an HBCU. Not only will they talk to you about the HBCU they went to, but also just the HBCU experience. 

SM: Do it. Just do it. There are definitely a lot of options, and sometimes HBCU options aren’t always publicized as others. Just take your time to research, find the right HBCU for you, reach out to admissions. I know it looks a bit different right now with COVID, but I encourage you to take the HBCU college tours when they’re available again. Going to an HBCU…really changed my life. 

As of this year, more than 2,000 KIPP alumni attend HBCUs. To learn more about the importance HBCUs have in the college persistence rates of our students there, check out this KIPP on Learning Podcast conversation with KIPP Foundation Board of Director members, Dr. Michael L. Lomax, United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) President and Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix  here

By: Claire Godwin, Chief of Policy & Public Affairs – KIPP Foundation