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My Father’s Wish to Attend an HBCU Forever Changed My Life

Wanji Walcott
Executive Vice President
Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel
Riverwoods, IL
Pronouns: She/Her

Being the only one

I didn’t intend to attend an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). My decision was largely driven by my father. I was the only Black person— and I don’t even mean student, I mean Black person— at my school until 6th grade. The first Black teacher I ever encountered in my life wasn’t until my senior year of high school. He wasn’t even my teacher, he was just a history teacher at the school.

My dad’s wish

Watching everything unfold in my formative years, my dad wanted me to attend an HBCU. When college decision time came, he put me (albeit a little unwillingly) in the car and we visited a couple of them. When I arrived at what would later become my alma mater, I distinctly knew I wanted to go there. I just had a feeling as soon as I set foot on that campus. I felt that it was where I belonged. I knew it was a place where I could grow.

My perceptions of HBCUs

Similar to how many white people may feel, I had my own perceptions of what an HBCU would be like. Because I’d never attended one, and I didn’t know anyone who had, I worried that I wasn’t going to fit in or find friends. I was raised in a very white environment my entire life and I assumed everyone at an HBCU would come from a predominantly Black environment. When I arrived, I quickly found a bunch of people who had similar experiences to mine. I met people who, just like me, had gone to New England boarding schools and had grown up as “the only one” too.

Diversity within diverse communities

From there, I branched out. I met a lot of people who had completely different experience from mine. I learned that there’s a lot of diversity within diverse communities. I didn’t have this realization until college (maybe I should have learned that growing up, but I didn’t), and it made me even more enamored with the HBCU community. My college experience brought together people who I never even knew were out there— prominent Black families from all over the world, star athletes, star academics. Both meeting people that were like me and different from me was foundational. Many of those people are lifelong friends to this day.

Finding philosophy

I originally wanted to be a philosophy major. I took one philosophy class in high school and I loved it. I knew I wanted to go to law school and I liked that the degree would teach me how to think and how to write.

My dad and the department head

My dad wanted me to be an engineering major. He’d won the HBCU battle, but I refused to let him pick my major. He thought I was crazy and didn’t know how I’d land a job after graduation. So I found the head of the philosophy department and I said, “I want to be a philosophy major, but I need you to meet with my dad.” The department head agreed and met with my dad a week later. To this day I don’t know what the department chair told my dad during their meeting, but my dad walked out of the meeting and said, “You’re going to be a philosophy major.”

The path not taken

I’m happy that I pushed back because I don’t think engineering would have been the right path for me. We always joked that I would still be at school if I’d been an engineering major. Engineering wasn’t my interest or my strength. And when you combine something that’s not your strength and not your interest, it’s unlikely you’ll excel. Although it’s funny, when I first became a lawyer I was very focused on tech and intellectual property. I felt like that job was a nod to my dad. A look, I’ve come full circle moment. Though I wasn’t exactly an engineer.

Taking over the administration building

In my junior year, my alma mater made a new appointment to the Board of Trustees. A small group of us students were opposed to their appointment because of that person’s history with segregationists. Long story short, we took over the administration building. We locked ourselves in there for two days until the school announced the appointee wouldn’t join our Board of Trustees.

We might get arrested

During those two days, the police came. We’d chain locked all the doors. The police didn’t break through the doors, but they were outside with a bullhorn. Some of the organizers inside told us, we might get arrested, you may want to leave now.

If you believe in it, you should stay

I remember being in the administration building on a payphone, calling my parents and telling my mom that I might get arrested. My mom was insistent that I get out of there and leave immediately. Eventually she put my dad on the phone. (Remember, my dad and I didn’t always agree on a lot.) But my dad said to me, “If you believe in what you’re doing, you should stay.” My dad’s now deceased, so thinking back on this moment is emotional. When I heard his words in that moment, I hung up the phone and told the organizers that I believed in what we were doing, and I was staying. 48 hours after we’d locked ourselves in, the school announced they’d cancelled that appointment to their board of trustees.

A pivotal moment in my life

I’d never been involved in a peaceful protest, or anything like it before. Up until then, I’d just drifted through my happy life. That demonstration was the first time I encountered something bigger than myself that I could influence. It was a pivotal moment. It showed me the power a small group of people can have. From then on, I understood that if I knew something was wrong and I didn’t take action, I would be complicit in it.

Having an experience like that in college is critical. It showed me who I was and what was important to me. That spunky kid locked in the administration building is still in me. She feeds into my desire to practice law.

Ancestral pride

The biggest benefit I got out of attending an HBCU was just understanding more about my history and my ancestors’ history. I learned about so many people from my alma mater who were the first ever to fill-in-the-blank. Learning about my history fueled my work ethic. It fueled my ambitions. It inspired me to attend the same university as so many impressive people, who overcame so much. And I thought, I’m here too.

I hadn’t realized how growing up as “the only one,” had affected my developing self-confidence. I’d had great friends. It’s not as though I experienced a lot of negative things growing up. But being the only one, I experienced micro-aggressions.

Conversely, being in a historically Black college setting built my confidence. I developed a sense of pride. It made me walk straighter. Put my chin up a little bit more, shoulders back. I felt good about myself. I felt privileged to be there. I wanted to make the most of it.

Childhood dreams

As a child, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, save the world and advocate for people. Becoming a corporate lawyer certainly wasn’t the game plan at the time (I didn’t even know what corporate law was). Although I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, I didn’t have any sort of examples of what that path would be. No one was a lawyer in my family. I didn’t know how to get there. I just knew that I had to go to law school at some point.

I imagined entering public interest law and never wanted to work with corporations. At the time, I held strongly to my belief that all corporations were bad. But it turns out, I could do both. In my current role at Discover, I advocate for people and advance our mission to bring our customers a brighter financial future. It’s possible to do both.

 

Learn more about our new partnership with HBCU, Paul Quinn College.