Why My HBCU Matters

4 minutes read time
Barbara Alston

Why My HBCU Matters

After you’ve been in your career for a while, the name of your undergraduate school rarely makes it into your “60 second elevator pitch.” For most professionals, after a while, this pitch starts to become more about their subject matter expertise or career accomplishments. Well, for me, and other alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) at the U.S. Department of State, it’s a little different. We are always proud to mention our alma maters when we encounter colleagues and strangers alike. As a proud graduate of Jackson State University (JSU), I have a deep love and appreciation for HBCU’s and am passionate about sharing their value in contributing some of the best and brightest to our pool of future leaders.

I know many of my fellow #HBCUsatState alumni will agree, that the knowledge, skills, and networks that we gained throughout our HBCU experiences are invaluable and useful in our day to day work. For example, at JSU, joining organizations like student government taught me how to effectively lead and use my communications skills.  In student government activities, I recall constantly having to “sell my audience” and to be comfortable addressing others. I utilize those skills every day in the public affairs and communications profession. Perhaps more importantly, I also learned the value of friendship at my HBCU. After 25 years, I still communicate with members of my “JSU Family” every day. We remain good friends because many of us overcame obstacles together. I learned that teamwork is paramount to success, and today I value my State Department family just as much as my JSU Family.

As a civil service officer, it is my hope that students will take advantage of the opportunities they are afforded in school, because those skills will help them in the future -- just as they helped me. It is also my hope that students from all backgrounds recognize that they have a role to play in shaping the world around us and forging solutions to the challenges that we all face.  I’m proud of the State Department’s commitment to engaging HBCUs around the country and engaging them in the world of diplomacy. For that reason, I am particularly excited to have concluded another successful HBCU Foreign Policy Conference at the State Department today. For some attendees, this conference was their first time encountering the world of diplomacy and foreign policy. And for others, they’ve followed the news, world events, and have long dreamed of becoming diplomats.  Whichever end of the spectrum it was an honor to welcome this dynamic group to the Department for the 10th iteration of this conference, themed “Partnering to Impact Change in Foreign Policy.”

This year’s conference featured interactive panel discussions on U.S. foreign policy priorities and non-traditional paths to foreign affairs. Many of these discussions were led by fellow #HBCUsAtState Alumni and #STEM@State. The #HBCUsAtState panel featured HBCU alumni working in foreign affairs and who are making an impact around the world. #STEM@State panelist shared their stories about the exciting work they do in science, technology and engineering related fields. Students heard first-hand from foreign affairs policy makers like Spelman University graduate, Dr. Kiron Skinner, Director of the Secretary’s Office of Planning as well as a keynote address from Ambassador Reuben Brigety, II, Dean of The Elliott School of International Affairs, who is the son of two HBCU alumni.  Participating students also had the opportunity to engage in foreign policy briefings and discussions on real issues we face today. They engaged with subject matter experts working on humanitarian issues and learned about the role of economic diplomacy in supporting our policy priorities. In one of the break-out sessions on Study Abroad opportunities for students, Gilman Alumni Ambassador Kwame Crawford spoke with students about the Gilman Scholarship Program. Kwame took advantage of the Program and studied in Ghana. He is a current student at Howard University. 

The HBCU Foreign Policy Conference is just one way the Department demonstrates support for diversity and inclusivity efforts. I'm proud to have hosted yet another successful conference for these students. And I hope the conference will continue to serve as a tool to empower HBCU students to harness their roles as global citizens and inspire them to find their places in one of the many career opportunities available in the foreign affairs world.

About the Author: Barbara Alston serves in the Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Engagement.

Editor’s Note: The entry is also published on the U.S. Department of State’s Medium publication.

For More Information:

  • Learn about more ways to engage with the Department by contacting PublicOutreach@state.gov.
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  • Follow the hashtag #HBCUsatState to follow the conversation.