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When I was a 15-year-old high school student in Lexington, KY, my mother didn’t know it, but I was only marginally serious about anything academic. Like most girls my age, I was mostly focused on boys (not particularly cute or smart or interesting – just boys) and a few extracurricular activities. Believe it or not, I even dabbled a bit in rapping. Because it was the 90s, and with artists like Left Eye, Queen Latifah, YoYo, Foxy Brown, and Lil Kim, were you even a teenager if you didn’t fancy yourself a rapper? Can’t claim that I was a serious rapper, though, because I can’t even remember my rap name. But I did spend time writing rhymes and performing at little local shows. I was also in the marching band and was super active in church. To this day I can’t recall one school assignment that ever meant anything to me. It just wasn’t a priority.
I did have teachers who mattered, however. One, in particular, was Mrs. Claudette Allan. She taught social studies at Henry Clay High School. She was an older Black woman likely in her mid-50s who was what we in education circles refer to as a “no-nonsense nurturer.” Though I tried her often, she always managed to correct me while making it clear that she genuinely cared about my well-being. To this day when I picture Mrs. Allan, I picture an affable, loving lady with a beautiful, infectious smile. I would talk during class and even get into arguments with other students (not respectfully) about the lack of merit in their law and justice arguments. I became so disrespectful one time, that she threw me out of class. That incident is etched in my memory as it is the only time I’ve been thrown out of anywhere!
Even with my antics, Mrs. Allan must have seen something worth redeeming in me. After all, I wasn’t “Lean On Me” bad — just a little mouthy and unfocused. I would later learn that she was a devout Christian and I can only guess it was her Christian values that caused her to make a bit of a salvation project out of me because she began referring me for every kind of college readiness program she could find. One in particular called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), proved particularly vital. As a participant in this program, I took classes in study habits, homework help, and leadership, and was paired with a college student from the University of Kentucky who served as my mentor. She was a young Black woman and in addition to being beautiful, I thought she was so incredibly cool. It was obvious that all the guys in the program — both the high school students and the college ones — had a crush on her. She talked to me about college, and though I had always assumed I would go, as a first-generation college student, I didn’t actually know anything about how to get there.
Having this young woman in my life (whose name I wish I remembered) gave me a role model to emulate, and having a champion like Mrs. Allan ensured that I wouldn’t fall through the cracks. It is because of them that I was introduced to Spelman College. Since my junior year of high school, I wanted nothing more than to be accepted into this hallowed institution of Black girl magic! To this day I’m not sure I have wanted anything as much as I wanted to attend that college. It felt like my destiny! A Black college tour organized by my school ensured that I was able to visit the campus grounds at Spelman during my junior year. I was rapt with attention as we sat in the admissions offices and listened to the counselors tell us all about the admissions process. One counselor in particular, Ulissa Bowls, caught my attention. I rushed to her after the meeting to ask for her card (which is how you stayed connected with people back then). What followed was two years of letters, emails, and phone calls as she guided me every step of the way.
I recall a particularly embarrassing moment with Ulissa during my senior year. I was dating my future husband, Shaun, who was then already a student at Morehouse. One weekend, I lied to my mother and told her I was spending the night at a friend’s house when in actuality I was in a car headed for Atlanta to spend a few days with Shaun in his apartment! As a mother now to a high school senior, I can’t believe I actually pulled that stunt. I would absolutely lose my shit if my daughter ever did such a thing! But I digress. On this secret trip to the A, I arranged to meet with Ulissa. Because I was going to visit my man, I had gotten my hair and nails done. But I didn’t get just any manicure, I got an acrylic set and had the letters S-H-A-U-N spray painted onto each nail! Though it didn’t stop me from doing it, I had at least been raised well enough to be embarrassed by this nail “art” as I sat across from Ulissa, so I did my best to hide them. She saw them eventually, though, and all she could say was “Oh, Rai-Tonicia.” Good lord, I wanted to sink into the chair and disappear!
Another difficult moment came when I had to confide in Ulissa during my senior year that though my very carefully crafted application was likely sitting on her desk at that very moment, I confessed that I had already failed several classes that year. I had signed up for AP Biology and several other high level courses but just wasn’t focused on them. I rarely went to class and was instead too busy trying to run a program I had started with my girlfriends called Senior Sisters, where we mentored a group of freshman girls to help them acclimate to high school. Though I totally flunked my senior year, a few of those girls followed me to Spelman four years later, so the stress of knowing I had severely limited my chance of acceptance into the school was well worth it (in the end).
It is very obvious to me now that the universe (who I call God) was coming together to propel me towards Spelman. In addition to Mrs. Allan, Ulissa Bowles, and my unnamed mentor, there were two other women who helped me in my journey. One was a young adjunct English professor at the University of Kentucky named Phyllis. She spoke to my class during a college tour and of course, my antenna went straight up the moment she mentioned that she had attended Spelman College. I connected with her after her talk and once I was ready to apply to Spelman, she edited my application essay for me. The other woman was a member of my church. Her name was LaShonda. She was also a Spelman alum and wrote one of my letters of recommendation. She also made calls to the housing office for me a couple of years later when I was struggling to get a room on campus.
The story of my journey to Spelman is literally a story of what happens when a village of Black women come together to care for and mentor the young women in our village. When I arrived to campus on my move-in date in August of 1999, an admissions counselor was waiting at a table to register me. As soon as I gave her my name, she stood up and said “Oh my goodness. Ulissa has been waiting for you and told me to alert her as soon as you arrived.” She left the table and said, “Ulissa, your baby is here.” It makes me emotional to this day to think about it. I arrived to campus with no one but my college boyfriend to move me in. To know that someone was expecting me and anxiously anticipating my arrival made me feel instantly safe and welcomed. I’m proud to say that this same ethic of looking out for our sisters continues today. I’m a proud member of the Spelman Moms Facebook group (and Alumnae 1881 Sisters, and Spelman Educators…there’s a subgroup for every imaginable category). Talk about “Avengers Assemble!” If members of these groups get even a whiff of a Spelman graduate or current student in need, there is nothing they won’t do to show up. Affectionately known as the Spelmafia, I have seen these women mobilize to work miracles. They have also been a constant source of encouragement to me during these difficult years in the public eye.
As we celebrate our Founder’s Day this Saturday, April 11, I recognize that my story is just one in the tens of thousands that must exist in our 139 year history. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been vital to the advancement of Black people since the post-reconstruction era when so much access was denied from predominantly white institutions. Their place as a womb of protection and their legacy of care and community is just as relevant today as record numbers of students are applying to attend these institutions during these racially turbulent times. What a blessing that I get to count myself among its supporters. Thanks to the chorus of Black women who pushed, pulled, and carried me through, I finished my freshman year at Spelman with a 4.0 and even earned an academic scholarship that allowed me to continue my studies. I’ve gone on to earn a Master’s degree, and will begin my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University this spring.
I have so many great memories of my years at Spelman. I fell quickly into the college scene of partying and hanging out with my friends, and because of that, I didn’t thank Ulissa enough and eventually lost touch with her and the other women who played such significant roles in my journey. But it is clear that the only reason I was accepted into Spelman (provisionally I might add) is because of their advocacy. So on this Founder’s Day, I want to honor every magical Black woman that cared enough to see me and give of their time. I’ve tried to be worthy of it and I’ve tried to pay it forward. And shoutout to my day ones: Tiffany, Kre, Sam, Kim, Deya, and Candice. What a good time we had! Love you all.
If you’d like to support other women on their journey through Spelman, please consider making a donation here to their general fund.