ND graduate and professional students share how HBCUs helped prepare them

Dr. Charlie Nelms knows firsthand the power of an education at one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Nelms offered remarks to kick off the Historical and Current Significance of HBCUs event held in the days leading up to Notre Dame’s first-ever home football game against an HBCU. He shared his own story of working as a sharecropper in Arkansas’ cotton fields to serving as chancellor of Indiana University East and North Carolina Central University, thanks to the undergraduate training he received at Arkansas Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). And he provided facts and figures to illustrate the crucial role HBCUs still play in educating Black students.

Of the nearly 5,000 institutions of higher education in the U.S. — research universities, technical colleges, community colleges, etc. — 107 are HBCUs. Nelms said that, despite increased university options for Black students, HBCUs are still needed because they are important cultural anchors for the community and provide an important pathway to social mobility. For instance, he told the audience, despite only totaling about 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, HBCUs educate 40 percent of Black engineers; 50 percent of Black teachers, lawyers and physicians; and 80 percent of Black judges.

Over the years, a number of Notre Dame’s graduate and professional students have arrived in South Bend by way of an HBCU. Some of the University’s current students offered to share their memories and experiences:

Denise “Angie” Huerta

Third-year Ph.D. student

HBCU: Fisk University (Nashville, Tenn.)

Degree earned: Master of science in physics

Huerta said: “Fisk University and, more specifically, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, have been cornerstones of my academic and personal growth. They gave me the opportunity to continue my education after undergrad and broadened my horizons regarding opportunities available to me within and outside academia. One of the most profound contributors to my personal growth was the profound sense of community the bridge program cultivated and has served as a constant source of motivation, reminding me that I am not alone, even as our paths diverged. As a minority pursuing a science career, I have always been aware of the historical and systemic challenges faced by individuals like me. The bridge program's supportive and inclusive environment prepared me for my current journey in the Physics Ph.D. program here at Notre Dame, not only academically but also by nurturing my resilience and determination to succeed. ”

Peris Munene

First-year law student

HBCU: Oakwood University (Huntsville, Ala.)

Degree earned: Bachelor of arts in pre-law with a minor in international business

Munene said: “Oakwood University was a safe space for me to learn from other attorneys who looked like me. This exposure not only gave me a network into the legal career, but exposed me to job opportunities. My professors cared for me, fed into me, and encouraged me as I grew in my confidence – not only in law, but also as a budding adult. I was able to recognize my value as a minority and could leave the space with my head held high despite others outside discrediting due to my race.”

Ozioma Nwachukwu

Third-year Ph.D. student

HBCU: Southern University and A&M College (Baton Rouge, La.)

Degree earned: Master’s degree in engineering

Specific area of study: Environmental and water resource management

Nwachukwu said: “My experience at my HBCU has undeniably played a significant role in shaping the woman I am today. It was a transformative period marked by various challenges, but overcoming these obstacles taught me some of life's most valuable lessons. Faced with the harsh reality of limited funding and other hindrances that unfortunately still plague many HBCUs today, I was forced to become resourceful in my pursuit of education. I learned to be creative and think outside the box to find alternative solutions when resources are scarce. Whether seeking scholarships or pooling resources with fellow students, I cultivated the art of resourcefulness and working closely with my peers. Through my HBCU, I have discovered that we can achieve more through collaboration. Furthermore, my experience at my HBCU instilled a profound sense of resilience.

“Despite facing obstacles that may have deterred others, I pressed on, fueled by the determination to achieve my goals. This resilience has become an invaluable asset in my current role, where I've encountered and overcome complex challenges in my research. My ability to think creatively and find innovative solutions has allowed me to tackle these problems effectively. In summary, my HBCU experience has not only provided me with an education but has shaped my character. It has made me resourceful, a strong advocate for collaboration, and a resilient individual who thrives in adversity. These skills and values continue to guide me in my personal and professional journey, reminding me of my HBCUs profound impact in preparing me for the woman I am today.”


Jordan Smith

Second-year Ph.D. student

HBCU: Howard University (Washington, D.C.)

Degree earned: Bachelor of science in chemical engineering

Smith said: “At Howard, I was a member of the Karsh STEM Scholars Program. This program taught me many valuable lessons and prepared me for graduate school. From encouraging me to do internships each summer to surrounding me with a network of peers with similar goals, my time at Howard helped me become the person I am today.”

Raissa Twiringiyimana

Ph.D. candidate

HBCU: Spelman College (Atlanta, Ga.)

Degree earned: Bachelor of science in biochemistry

Twiringiyimana said: “During my time at Spelman College, I participated in LINCS (Living and Learning in an Interdisciplinary Community of STEM Scholars) program that aimed to prepare women of African descent for careers in the biomedical sciences. This program equipped me with the necessary tools such as information on summer research programs, opportunities for women in STEM, etc. With this information, I was able to make the decision to pursue a career in chemistry.”

Hezekiah Williams

Second-year Ph.D. student

HBCUs: Hinds Community College-Utica Campus (Utica, Miss.) and Jackson State University (Jackson, Miss.)

Degrees earned: Associate of arts; bachelor of science in biomedical engineering

Specific area of study: Materials science and engineering with a focus in bioengineering

Williams said: “Choosing to attend both HindsCC-Utica and Jackson State University was quite honestly the best decision I have ever made. HindsCC-Utica and Jackson State have a rich culture and a deep-rooted history of excellence, of which I was privileged to take part. Not only did I feel loved and supported by the campus community at both institutions, but the rigorous curricula and on-campus research projects prepared me for industry work. I presented at both in-state as well as out-of-state conferences and symposiums while maintaining a steady routine of attending office hours with professors who genuinely cared about my academic and career aspirations. Lastly, my extracurricular activities such as serving the student body on campus through student government, the McNair Scholars Program, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation assured me that I would have the necessary soft skills to complement my academic prowess. Attending HindsCC-Utica and Jackson State University played a pivotal role in making me the man I am today. Many of my friends, professors, mentors, and colleagues from both institutions are still active in my life to this day. Much of my success is owed to them.”


To read the reflections of some of the University’s faculty and staff HBCU alumni, click here.