Institutions across the country have lost huge aspects of student life due to the pandemic and for HBCUs, in particular, the culture and traditions that make these schools socially unique took a substantial hit.
Now, with the pandemic slowly starting to wilt thanks to the help of vaccines and local leaders starting to eliminate mask mandates, historically Black colleges and universities are trying to get back to a sense of social normalcy.
Seniors scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2022 have only experienced one fully normal academic year at their HBCUs, and they were freshmen at that time. As upperclassmen, these students are some of the last to have a true understanding of what HBCU life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
I caught up with HBCU seniors to talk about how life on their campuses has changed and what the feelings are like at their institutions now.
“Covid has highly impacted the social vibes at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University,” Brianna Jones, a senior broadcast journalism student with a minor in criminal justice at FAMU, said in a recent conversation before adding: “FAMU is known for ‘Set Fridays’ going viral … Fridays now on campus are very quiet and dead.
Jones suggested these changes may be here to stay.
“The culture is definitely going away sadly because this is the new normal to many students,” she said. “The class of 2024 started on Zoom. They’ve only seen ‘the old FAMU’ on social media so this is normal for them.”
For Jones and other students at FAMU, “Set Fridays” — a weekly social gathering — used to be a time to relax and release the built-up stress from the week. She also said that COVID-19 has impacted more than just their Friday event, as having school elections on Zoom had a huge effect on the campus culture and didn’t allow students to connect with their peers who were running for office. To Jones, this created a bad precedent of work ethic for these elections “going downhill” when it comes to reaching the communities they try to serve.
HBCUs across the country take an enormous amount of pride in their on-campus elections, especially for positions like Student Government Association (SGA) President and Mister and Miss roles.
“I haven’t noticed anything that hasn’t been affected. It used to be just people out and about everywhere. People are in spaces now, they found a space that they like that they feel good in and they go straight there,” Suiter told NewsOne before presenting a before-and-after example.
“Let’s say it’s like 12 or 2 p.m., even if you were just going to class it would be people everywhere,” Suiter said of campus activity before the pandemic. “If you were in the Academic Quad or by Villages or was in the Student Center you know that joint was packed out. If you were taking a picture, people were going to be around you.”
There is no comparison after the pandemic hit.
“I’ve taken pictures now in open spaces and there’s no one around me,” Suiter said.
“For some people, it’s probably normal to them. But to know how it was like hundreds of people out in every given area, in any direction…we literally have seen both sides of the spectrum,” Suiter continued. “We’ve been trying not to be like ‘well dang, it wasn’t always like this,’ but you can’t help it. It’s not even bad, it’s changing. I mean you don’t have any choice but to change.”
Suiter also mentioned that with COVID-19, it took more steps to get events approved on campus. Testing, capacity limits and other precautions all came into play when planning things in which students would want to participate.
However, despite the challenges of the pandemic, Suiter said he believes that A&T still has that unique Aggie Pride instilled in its student body even though the culture may be different. The spirit is still there even though it’s on a “smaller scale,” he said.
“There’s no way we can be like how it was before it’s not even safe right now,” Suiter stressed. “It’s still there though, the basketball games the atmosphere is still there, the events pretty much have the same feel… I will say we have done a good job of keeping the school spirit.”
The schools did what they had to do to try to protect their students and employees as best they could during the early parts of the pandemic. Students like Jones and Suiter understand that and they’ve tried their best to roll with the punches and adjust.
It seems like the love for the school and the HBCU community hasn’t changed, but the circumstances are noticeably different for many students who got to see these schools operate without COVID-19 restrictions.
As the pandemic starts to subside, our HBCUs will have to focus on building their culture back and maintaining a part of the unique social prowess that helps make these institutions one of a kind.
“I absolutely loved FAMU before COVID. I still love it now but it’s different,” said Jones. “I’m very grateful that I had a chance to experience FAMU before this pandemic because many students didn’t. My freshman year, I started in summer 2018 and I had the best time of my life. From parties every weekend, on-campus events, actually seeing people’s faces, homecomings … it was absolutely amazing.”
He continued: “While FAMU is trying to start opening up more it won’t ever be the same. When I was a freshman the campus was lit…Many people now would rather just sit in their rooms because they’ve been doing it for years now. “