Pride runs deep among ND faculty and staff who graduated from HBCUs

In the weeks leading up to Notre Dame’s 2023 home football opener against Tennessee State, Eric Love found himself in several conversations where he had to explain the history and legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Love, director of staff diversity in Notre Dame Human Resources, said people were familiar with the term HBCU but not the relevance. So he decided to organize an event —The Historical and Current Significance of HBCUs — to help educate the campus and local communities. Love knew he wanted to include HBCU alumni on a panel and, luckily, he didn’t have to look far. Notre Dame’s own graduate student, faculty and staff populations include several scholars and professionals who are part of the HBCU tradition.

Panel participants included Nyree McDonald, associate dean for graduate enrollment management; Rev. Hugh Page, vice president of institutional transformation; and Cidni Sanders, executive director of diversity communications. During the event they described the family connections, campus climate and classroom interactions that shaped their HBCU experiences.

Some of the University’s other faculty and staff who graduated from HBCUs share their memories and perspectives below:

Crystal Bates

Program director for diversity, equity and inclusion and alumni engagement, School of Architecture; graduate student in the Executive Master of Nonprofit Administration (EMNA) program

HBCU: Spelman College (Atlanta, Ga.)

Degree earned: B.A. in English with a minor in writing

Bates said: “Spelman College exposed me to the depth, beauty, resilience and power of Black women. During college, and for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by Black women from all walks of life and from countries across the globe. I lived and learned with women whose lived experiences were so different from my small town upbringing in the American south. I was amazed by how different we all were, and at the same time, how we shared so much cultural kinship in the ways we expressed ourselves (Hey, Girl!) and in our customs and traditions (wrapping our hair at night and “A Different World” marathons). As young women, we all wanted to make the most of our college experience so we could go out into the world and do great things. Spelman prepared us for this journey in so many ways. She built our confidence in ourselves and our abilities, taught us our untold history and helped us recognize the power of Black legacy. My professors and school administrators provided us with experiences to travel, intern and gain exposure to our intended professional fields. I will be forever grateful for my Spelman experience.”


Gabriel Burks

Assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering

HBCU: Grambling State University (Grambling, La.)

Degree earned: B.S. in physics with a minor in chemistry from Grambling (Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Drexel University and postdoctoral training at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Specific area of study: Polymer physics and in-situ transmission electron microscopy

Burks said: “Grambling State University taught me that every situation in life will not always be perfectly laid out for you, and that to achieve success you must be comfortable navigating uncertainties, disciplined in your preparation, and courageous enough to always believe in yourself.”

(John) Scott Connors

Assistant Athletic Director, Compliance (Athletics)

HBCU: Southern University Law Center (Baton Rouge, La.)

Degree earned: Juris doctor

Connors said: “Simply put, without SULC, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in today. There are so many skills that I learned at SULC that are applicable to what I do here at Notre Dame. From persuasive writing to legal analysis, I can't think of a time I'm not applying skills that I walked away from SULC with.”

Horane Diatta-Holgate

Teaching assistant professor and program director for inclusive pedagogy, ND Learning-Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence

HBCU: Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, N.C.)

Degree earned: Bachelor of arts in psychology with a minor in sociology

Specific area of study: Developmental psychology

Diatta-Holgate said: “I received great mentorship and support from the faculty and staff. Everyone was invested in helping me succeed. This was very important for me since I was not familiar with U.S. culture or the university system. My main support was my advisor and mentor Dr. Ruth Greene who provided training and opportunities for me to develop the knowledge and skills needed to matriculate to a Ph.D. program in educational psychology and research methods. It was the experience working with Dr. Ruth Greene in her lab that provided both the confidence and know-how to go directly to a Ph.D. program after finishing my bachelor’s. Additionally, the university was committed to providing fully-funded financial assistance to international students. This was crucial for me since I could not get a loan, and without the scholarship I would not have been able to study in the U.S. at all – not to mention going to graduate school to get a Ph.D. which is instrumental to fulfilling my roles and responsibilities at Notre Dame.

“My track and field coach Lennox Graham, my academic advisor and mentor, the multicultural office coordinator Dr. Rixon Campbell, student success coordinator Ms. Sonia Youngblood, my fellow peers from Jamaica and other faculty who took time to help me navigate the university system were instrumental in making my aspirations as a teenager in Jamaica to become a university professor a reality. Through my experiences at JCSU, I was able to connect the things I enjoyed – learning and service – to my professional aspirations. The idea I had in my mind of a university professor and the purpose of a university education were expanded in new ways. This allowed me to see myself not simply as someone who would present information for people to learn, but as someone who would cultivate opportunities that can ultimately transform people's lives for generations.”

Cheryl Vowels

Director of regional development, University Relations

HBCU: Spelman College (Atlanta, Ga.)

Degree earned: Bachelor of science in physics and participant in dual degree engineering program (Bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology)

Vowels said: “One memorable experience I had as a student was going to Sisters Chapel every week my freshman year to hear various speakers. I was truly transformed during these sessions. I felt FULLY empowered. I felt excellence/leadership from me was the only option. I felt I must make positive impacts/contributions in everything I do and, most importantly, I felt there was NOTHING I couldn't accomplish or strive for. The women who were the guest speakers were the most influential and successful Black women in the country, primarily in corporate America. I had successful women in my life, but they all worked in education. I didn't know any women who were leaders in corporate America. It inspired me to strive to do the same, which I was able to accomplish.”

To read the reflections of some of the University’s graduate and professional student HBCU alumni, click here.