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White House’s HBCU conference created ‘a room full of black excellence’

Global competitiveness, STEM were key topics during National HBCU Week Conference

WASHINGTON — The significant work to strengthen historically black colleges and universities was on full display this week at the National HBCU Week Conference.

“Being in a room full of black excellence is beautiful,” said Avery Atkinson, who attended Hampton and Norfolk State universities. “There are people from all regions of the U.S. representing various HBCUs. Some people are graduates from HBCUs who are now professionals working in the White House and other federal agencies, which is inspirational.”

The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges, which was established in 1981, hosted the event focused on enhancing competitiveness among HBCUs. Representatives from every HBCU attended the conference’s panels, workshops and ceremonies. The event made national headlines after President Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday, in which he announced that HBCUs with a religious affiliation could now access federal funds for capital projects. More than 1,300 people attended the four-day conference.

Atkinson is president and founder of Passport University. Passport Life is her travel and lifestyle brand, and Passport University is the nonprofit arm that works with HBCUs to create opportunities for global development and travel among students. In attending the conference, Atkinson enjoyed the atmosphere of being around hundreds of HBCU representatives. “Sometimes you feel like a unicorn if you don’t see people like yourself, so to be in a room full of unicorns feels exciting.”

Of the many workshops, whose topics ranged from campus safety to funding these institutions, Atkinson found a workshop on esports practical. “Dr. Marc Williams shared his series on gaming and esports, and he has been introducing this to HBCUs in terms of financial support and integrating students.”

Marc Williams, CEO of the marketing consulting group Williams Communications, was the keynote speaker on panels about both the gaming industry and networking among students. Williams sees more career opportunities becoming available in esports and gaming.

“We know that a lot of black college kids play video games, but we want to see them monetize it. We need to create a curriculum in universities on educating students about the jobs that exist in this field,” said Williams. “You can be a newscaster reporting in the gaming industry, but if no one teaches that, you may never get that opportunity. You can also be a lawyer, sports agent, computer science or marketing, all in the esports and gaming industry.”

While some, like Williams, used the conference to share employment opportunities with the HBCU audience, others used the conference to share their HBCU experiences.

“HBCUs produce the most educated constituency within the global African diaspora. For Africa, it’s about being innovative in strengthening its relationship with the diaspora.” – Kwabena Boateng

Kwabena Boateng, a native of Ghana and a graduate of Florida A&M University, believes that narratives about HBCUs should tell more global stories. “Many of Africa’s liberation leaders, like Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, were products of HBCUs, and that’s something that gets lost,” he said.

Boateng is president of Africa Diaspora Nation, an organization that looks to leverage the African diaspora in the development of the African continent. He told the audience: “HBCUs produce the most educated constituency within the global African diaspora. For Africa, it’s about being innovative in strengthening its relationship with the diaspora.”

The conference served as a unifying event, nationally and globally. Still, Trump’s presence did not go overlooked.

“I felt a major mood change when he arrived, but that’s what’s to be expected given his consistent rhetoric towards people who don’t look like him,” said Atkinson.

Others felt optimistic about the president’s presence and had a positive view of his involvement with HBCUs. Paula Bruner, an agency representative for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, noted that much of the support for HBCUs has come in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“It is important that HBCU students be integrated into that area of technology. Of course, there is a definite direction in which this country is going, from artificial intelligence to robotic engineering. We just need to have the curriculum resources at our HBCUs that support this direction,” said Bruner, who works in education outreach and employment opportunities.

Arthur is a junior journalism major from Los Angeles. He works with the Department of Athletics at Howard and served as the production manager with Spotlight Network.