Johntrae Williams remembers the feeling he got watching Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” Coachella performance on Netflix.
The loud marching bands, the dancers, the black national anthem. It wasn’t just inspiring—he related to it personally.
“Beyoncé’s story about how she never went to an HBCU but would have liked to, I connected with that,” he said. “I went to a performing arts school. HBCUs weren’t really introduced to me.”
By association, it ended up inspiring the theme for Marshall Math Science Academy’s 2019 STEAM summer camp.
The Harrisburg School District resource coach for the college and career program, Williams is the director of the arts and communication at STEAM camp. He was struck by the references Beyoncé made during her performance to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Because of his experience, Williams desired to expose Marshall Academy students to HBCUs—making sure they’re fully informed when they begin thinking about higher education.
This was done by exploring 10 HBCUs in the context of the five avenues of STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Williams explained how the camp’s central focus was on project-based learning.
Camp began in June and ran through mid-July. The 200 fifth- through seventh-graders worked with Marshall Academy teachers, community artists and professionals. On their last day of camp, the students showcased their projects to the community.
Projects this year included an HBCU-themed mural, dances and other performances. Each team of students was named after an HBCU.
“I hope the sense of pride, climate and culture of HBCUs is really exemplified throughout the course of the camp,” Williams said during the preparation phase before camp. “When you don’t know [where you’re from], there has to be something you connect to. Self-reflection and self-image are a big deal.”
He explained the important sense of belonging that HBCUs can provide to African Americans, who often find it hard to trace the roots that slavery ripped away from them many years ago.
Seventh-grader Daesha Adams didn’t know much about HBCUs before STEAM camp this year. Her team was named after Spelman College, a women’s college in Atlanta. Through hands-on activities, Adams gained an appreciation for the school.
“People were desperate to go to college,” Adams said. “HBCUs changed a lot of people’s lives.”
Although her favorite part of camp was acting, her dream is to become a veterinarian. Because of STEAM camp, Adams hopes to go to Spelman.
Williams also wanted to inform his students about the benefits HBCUs offer to African Americans.
“There are organizations established to support them,” she said. “They can get into school with full scholarships with some of the talents they already have.”
Tayvon Williams, a sixth-grader, decided to come to camp again after attending last year.
“You get to learn things other people don’t get to learn,” he said. “You have to invest your time and work hard instead of staying home playing video games.”
Camp this year helped him visualize going to one of the HBCUs he learned about.
Tayvon was also part of the Beta Theta Mu Fra-rority (a mix between fraternity and sorority) that about 15 campers were involved in.
Williams had each group nominate certain students to be part of this leadership experience. In the fra-rority, which meets during camp recess, students learn about the “Divine Nine,” a number of historically black fraternities and sororities. They worked on memorizing a mission statement including, “We are committed to leading the way even when we have to pave the road ahead.”
The school has a majority black student body, but Williams saw the theme as also beneficial for campers who aren’t black.
“HBCUs are not only for African Americans,” he said. “This is about shining a light on something people didn’t know existed.”
This is exactly what Raheem Martin, founder of the program Harrisburg to HBCU’s, has been trying to do.
Like Williams, Martin was not introduced to HBCUs in school.
“Growing up, I toured so many college campuses—teachers never tell you about HBCUs,” he said. “The fact that I was never told about them made me want to educate students.”
For about two years, Martin has been taking prospective students to Howard University, among others, to spend a few days learning about college life at an HBCU.
Martin finds HBCUs crucial in communicating and maintaining African American history.
“Going to HBCUs tells you the real story of what our people went through,” Martin said. “You get to understand who you are as a person.”
Williams explained how Marshall’s STEAM camp was a great place to explore this sense of belonging tied to HBCUs, since these schools were and still are often STEAM-focused.
School may be out for the summer, but students at Marshall weren’t ready for a break. They had plenty to build and create, all while discovering a rich history with strong implications for their future.
To learn more about Harrisburg to HBCU’s, visit www.harrisburgtohbcus.com.