From PWI to HBCU: Why I fled

College, and threat of expulsion, made my naivete about racism disappear

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Jun 29 · 9 min read
Buckingham Fountain in downtown Chicago (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

Chicago gets criticized for being segregated. And on the southside, it is. But there are a few perks to that segregation in your early years. You get to see and embrace people who look like you, walk like you, talk like you, dress like you and have the same shared history as you. It builds you as a person. It makes you comfortable in your own skin in a way that I’m assuming being the “other” in the neighborhood doesn’t.

Recommended Reading: “Biracial and (not) proud

I graduated from a predominantly African-American elementary school. Our field trips included events like reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and hopping on a school bus to see the film Denzel Washington starred in. I did have a couple of non-black friends, daughters of my father’s co-workers. But for the most part, my friends looked like me. Then my mother decided it was time for me to go onto a more diverse high school. In my mother’s words, “The world is made up of more than black people. You need to be exposed to everybody.”

In my mother’s words, “The world is made up of more than black people. You need to be exposed to everybody.”

I enjoyed the makeup of my high school, with about a third of African-American students, a third of Hispanic students (mainly Mexican), and the rest were a mix of white and foreign exchange students. But I started getting a glimpse into the prejudice views of traditional education when I tried to take an African-American Literature course. I was told that I was too close to graduating and needed to take an “English” Literature course instead. (Read: A course exclusively dedicated to white writers.) I was bored to tears in a Creative Writing course with an instructor who was obsessed with William Shakespeare and tried to add that man in every single assignment we did.

Still, though, I wasn’t really in touch with the idea of racism. And then I went to college in Marquette, Michigan.

Whenever someone asks me what college I went to, my response is the same: “I did time at NMU. I graduated from Lincoln University in Missouri.” And the reason I say “did time” is because the 18-year-old version of myself felt like it might as well have been jail. There was no African-American history. No African-American literature. No BET. No African-American newspapers.

In a small town that had a noticeable amount of Native Americans, the rallies against sports teams names or pow-wows or even traditional learning events were always overlooked. Even the Gateway Academic Program (GAP), meant to tailor to minority students, was pretty much ignored by the mainstream papers. So GAP started their own newsletter.

Even the seagulls in Chicago had better reading material than me. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

And I could blame no one for my annoyance with this university because I insisted on going to this school — this was even after my mother had a full-blown temper tantrum about me not going to a city college. (She really had a rough time realizing I was growing up. We joke about it now.) But once I was there, she accepted it. Shortly after, I complained to my parents and my brother about this school. And my brother laughed it off. His response: “What’d you expect? You chose this all-white school and want to magically make it black?”

My brother’s response: “What’d you expect? You chose this all-white school and want to magically make it black?”

He had a point. In that two-year time frame, I was stunned to meet at least four white people who freely used the word “nigga” because “all my black friends at home don’t care.” I cared. And I had a conversation with two of the four at length about how that wasn’t cool with me. I didn’t give a damn what their “black friends at home” did. Knock it off around me. (The other two people were associates that I had less than a handful of interactions with and barely said more than a few words to.)

One particular American Literature III professor was furious that I went to the Head of the English Department, explaining that the “Harlem Renaissance” was mentioned in the class description. After discussing this with her, she told me, “I throw it in at the end.”

The (lack of) culture at this school was wearing me out. I wrote letters to the head of the English department and met with him twice. I wrote letters and petitions to the newspaper and the history department and even called out the cable company. At some point, a trusted and supportive African-American faculty member wondered how my grades were doing. I spent so much time focused on turning this school into what I wanted it to be, but somehow I still managed to keep passing grades.

That is, until one particular American Literature III professor was furious that I went to the Head of the English Department, explaining that the “Harlem Renaissance” was mentioned in the class description and ignored three of four months into the class. After discussing this with her, she told me, “I throw it in at the end.”

So I had zip zero problems with throwing her under the bus for ignoring an extremely significant part of the literary canon as a “throwaway” at the end. The Head of the English Department initially agreed with me and confronted that professor. That professor then sent me a scathing email about how it’s “my prerogative to teach what I want.” And a week or so later, Prerogative Professor decided to get me back in a way that was too petty for me to prepare for. Prerogative Professor asked the entire class to read Mark Twain aloud. And if you’ve read a Mark Twain book before, you know how often the word “nigger” is used.

In a class of 30+, I was the only African-American student. (And in a school of approximately 8,000 students, there were less than 100 black people.) There was one white guy who repeatedly raised his hand and didn’t pause a beat to read the lines from the book.

My professor asked the entire class to read Mark Twain aloud. And if you’ve read a Mark Twain book before, you know how often the word “nigger” is used.

I stared a hole right through him as he read, and then I stared at Prerogative Professor. By the time the student made eye contact with me, he realized it might be time to not read aloud anymore. So I read that book for the rest of that 50-minute course by myself and hawk-eyed anyone else who looked like they wanted to raise their hands. To my relief and what should’ve been Prerogative Professor’s shame, no one did.

I ended up becoming the enemy of the English Department because of that one professor. But I made a decision that was once again very naive, but I meant well. A Journalism professor had given me a lower grade for turning in an assignment about 10 minutes late. I was hurt, primarily because I really liked this particular professor. And another student, who happened to be on that same oblivious-to-minorities-school-newspaper, was able to turn in his paper equally late.

By the time we had teacher evaluations at the end of that class, I wrote in detail how much I did not appreciate that slight to me and favoritism toward him. When a volunteer was asked to take the evaluations, sealed in a manila envelope, to the English Department building, I raised my hand. But before I left, the Journalism instructor stopped me. She apologized and explained that she realized it was unfair to accept his paper and not mine. She’d changed my grade on it to the grade I deserved. And I instantly felt a sense of guilt wash over me because I knew what I’d written on that evaluation.

The walk to the English Department was long. And finally I decided I was going to erase (luckily I wrote in pencil) all the stuff I wrote about “favoritism” and “slights” about that Journalism instructor. My issues were with the English instructor, and I took all of my anger out on that Journalism instructor. I sat on a bench in the middle of the English Department, opened that envelope and erased all of what I wrote on the back of the evaluation form as much as I possibly could. And then I put my own evaluation back in with the others.

That was all the revenge the English Department needed to react.

Prerogative Professor had already dropped my grade from an A- to a C+ after failing my final paper with no explanation. Just a big red F. She didn’t even give it to me herself. She sent a teacher’s assistant downstairs to hand it to me in an unmarked white envelope. I wasn’t surprised. I chose to write about my experience in that course and why the literary canon needed to be more diverse. The Head of the English Department did nothing at all about my failing grade, other than asking to see a copy of that paper.

Shamontiel still proud of her HBCU experience 16 years later. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

I went home that summer, already accepted into a historically black college. Although I still liked that Journalism professor, I’d just grown tired of arguing with everybody. One African-American peer of mine told me flat out, “You need to start trying to find a boyfriend and stop being so militant.”

Although other black friends of mine were irritated by NMU’s class roster, professors and unapologetic disinterest in anything that wasn’t white, they quietly transferred or shrugged it off as “just four years.” That still didn’t make it right for me. While I was looking forward to my fall semester of “A Different World” instead of “doing time at NMU,” I got a letter in the mail.

Someone apparently walked by and saw me changing my answers on the teacher evaluation form. I was accused of changing answers on other students’ evaluations as well. Was it dumb for me to open the manila envelope? Absolutely. But anyone with two eyes who was spying on me could clearly see that I spent 100 percent of that time carefully erasing the back of just one evaluation and sliding it back in. I never touched the others.

So when I was told by letter — because of course they waited until I was eight hours away and about a month after it happened — that I was on academic probation and at risk of expulsion if I did anything else, I laughed. Hysterically. I was particularly tickled by the line about them holding my transcripts so they could not be released to other schools.

This statue on Lincoln University’s campus dedicated to the soldiers and officers of the 62nd United States Colored Infantry. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

Too late! I couldn’t have been more delighted to send a response back telling them that they could hold all the transcripts they wanted. I’d already been accepted to another school, an HBCU, and had no desire for Northern Michigan University to get a dime of my own or my parents’ tuition money.

I did, however, write a second letter to the Journalism instructor giving a detailed account of what happened with that evaluation envelope. To my relief, the Journalism instructor had already figured it out and accepted my apology immediately. She also apologized again for not accepting my late paper. She is one of only two professors that I am pleased to have met while I was at that institution.

I have not stepped foot in Marquette or on NMU’s campus sense. I learned a lot in college, but I certainly did not expect for racism to be on my syllabus. To live and to learn.

These are writings on race, gender and social justice. Ditch tokenism, embrace diversity.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist; freelance writer/editor (Upwork); Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Unity Toastmasters member and 4x officer; Visit Shamontiel.com

I Do See Color

These are writings on race, gender and social justice. Ditch tokenism, embrace diversity.

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