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The HBCU Experience

‘This Is Us’ recognizes the power of Howard University

As a senior, I know exactly how the show’s character Randall Pearson felt visiting The Mecca for the first time

If you didn’t catch the midseason finale of the NBC series This Is Us, you missed seeing on national television the moment a young black boy full of joy arrives on the main campus of Howard University, a place where blackness is unapologetic and excellence is vivacious.

One of the most touching moments of the show’s second season is a throwback to the ’90s in which high school junior Randall Pearson (Niles Fitch) asks his adoptive father, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), if he could visit the historically black university after initially filling out an application for Harvard University. Randall has been trying to figure out for a while where he would like to go to college.

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Alpha chapter performs a stroll during “First Friday” on The Yard of Howard University. These were the very first people I met during my first time visiting Howard on April 26, 2013.

Photo by Paul Holston

After Jack agrees to plan a trip to Howard with Randall, the episode soon shifts to The Yard, the symbolic heart of the campus. The environment and the Afrocentric energy that thrives throughout The Mecca immediately overwhelms Randall. Randall and Jack then walk to the Valley on campus and are greeted by Keith, a friend of Randall’s who is a Howard freshman, and Craig, another student who is a member of my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma (shout out to the MAB!). Keith offers to give Randall a tour, and to Randall’s surprise, he gets the comfort of being at an HBCU (historically black college or university). From walking the halls of Founders Library to eyeing a young woman who walks by him on The Yard to chilling in one of the dormitories with Nas and Lauryn Hill’s If I Ruled The World gliding in the background, the show does a great job of showing how many Howard students feel during their first experiences at The Mecca.

As a soon-to-be Howard alumnus (December), this show immediately reminded me of my first time at The Mecca on April 26, 2013. It was “First Friday,” and the first people who caught my eye on The Yard were Sigmas in their blue and white paraphernalia strolling to some of the latest hip-hop tracks. Who knew then that I would later become a part of black Greek life and gain a lifetime of brotherhood with that same fraternity? And after walking and talking with some of the students and faculty from the School of Communications, witnessing an on-campus protest for unarmed black victims of police brutality and just soaking up all of the blackness that Howard embodies, I knew that The Mecca came into my life for a reason.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker said this of the episode: “When we started talking about the college stories and where our Big Three would want to go, our writer Kay Oyegun came in with the idea that Randall would potentially be very interested in Howard [University], and we thought that that was such a rich story: that a black kid who was raised in a very, very white world with a few notable exceptions, being Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and her son, would be very interested in seeking out the total opposite and immersing himself in this culture that he never fully got to be a part of because of his adopted family.”

The storyline reflects the experience of some students at Howard — it is their first time at a place that appreciates you for not only your blackness but also your brilliance. And although no HBCU is perfect, professor Jules Harrell stated perfectly this semester that “Howard University is the students and the faculty. Everyone else is here to support.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Howard’s up close and personal moment was a chance for millions of TV viewers to see what an HBCU can offer, and to see a black boy finding something he’d been truly seeking: a place he could call home. Even when Randall talks with Jack on the ride home about the trip and the awkwardness of not introducing his adoptive white father to his friends, Jack knew Randall would make the right decision in his choice of school because he always made the right decisions in life.

When the show returns in January, let’s hope not just for more real HBCU cameos but for other popular shows to follow suit and include these institutions so the nation can see the brilliance that lives at HBCUs.

H-U!

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Paul Holston journalism major from Summerville, SC. He attends Howard University and served as 2016-17 editor-in-chief of The Hilltop.