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How My Parents’ HBCU Story Changed My Life

By Autumn Gilliam

Former Student, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University

Despite what my degree says, I’m an Aggie through and through.

My origin story began on the campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Long before I was even an idea, two young people from small rural towns each became the first in their families to attend college. Believing that military service would offer them the chance to travel, make new connections, and build careers, both enrolled in the school’s ROTC program. As my parents playfully retold it, my father was an older recruit tasked with conducting the daily uniform inspection of the new enlistees. One young recruit with big eyes and a bigger personality couldn’t hide her smile. Though admittedly cute, my father reasoned that he could not allow her insubordination to go unchecked. The punishment for flirting was 30 push-ups followed by a date. I literally owe my existence to this chance meeting at NC A&T.

Before I ever knew about HBCUs, this campus in Greensboro, NC, opened the world to my family. My parents’ military service took them to Germany, Korea, Kuwait, and Morocco. Growing up as “military brats” allowed my brother and me to crisscross the U.S. and Europe, learning new languages and meeting new people. Yet, we always returned home to NC A&T. Homecomings and alumni groups grounded us in who we were. We were kids of Aggies and the recruiting started early.

The recruitment campaign worked. I enrolled at NC A&T as a freshman in 2008. I felt echoes of my parents everywhere. I climbed the same stairs to the student union that they once did. Like them, I crowded into the Corbett Center to watch basketball games. I waited for my boyfriend to emerge from Cooper Hall – the same dorm where my mother had once lived. The connection to their past was always a surreal and an exciting experience, particularly when they would visit and point out little things connected to funny stories from their heyday.

Despite all the truly transformational firsts I experienced that freshman year at A&T, my career required a change of scenery. So, just like I’d done so many times during my parents’ military moves, I packed up and moved to Richmond, Virginia to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. Even though VCU was a great school and I made wonderful new friendships, the impact and foundation NC A&T created kept me coming back every chance I could get. So much so that some people started asking if I’d ever even left. I’d embarrassingly admit that I had, not quite being able to articulate that I missed the energy, community, and nurturing that was palpable on that campus. I regularly made 3-hour trips between Richmond and Greensboro. The speeding tickets acquired in the process were totally worth it.

Although I didn’t graduate from NC A&T, my year as an Aggie forever changed me. It inspired me to find ways to highlight the significance of HBCUs. It became the focus of several research papers in grad school, student volunteer programs I joined, and professional projects I’ve contributed to at The Home Depot. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. And it all came from a seed planted when two young ROTC students fell in love on an HBCU campus.

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