When I became interim president of Howard University in 2013, one of my first priorities was to talk to as many students as I could from across all our schools and colleges. During the course of those conversations, I was struck by how many of our students had multiple majors and minors, oftentimes in seemingly divergent areas of study. I encountered students who studied biology and African studies, chemistry and classical civilizations, political science and playwriting – there was seemingly no end to the possible permutations of subjects our students were selecting.
Traditionally, institutions of higher education have prioritized depth over breadth. Students were meant to have a singular focus on their major area of study to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the academic discipline that would serve as the foundation for their chosen profession.
But by choosing to pursue such disparate subjects, Howard students helped to reveal the inadequacies of that model. To be sure, their selection of multiple majors and minors reflected a diversity of interests and range of passions. But more significantly, they showed me that a contemporary education requires our students to both dig deep and cast a wide net. After all, students don’t come to Howard to get a degree – they come here to get an education.
In today’s world, there are very few professions that require a singular set of skills and knowledge. As a cancer surgeon, I need more than medical expertise and surgical training in order to provide the best care. I need communication skills to have difficult conversations with my patients and their families. I require research capabilities to uncover why health disparities persist in Black communities and how to address them. My work necessitates historical and sociological knowledge to understand my patients’ social determinants of health and the barriers that may impede their access to care.
At Howard University today, we want our students to think beyond their major and their future professional aspirations. It isn’t enough for our students to say they are a history major or that they want to be a lawyer. I want them to think about what they want to achieve in life, what gaps they perceive in our society and how they intend to fill them, what service they want to provide and who they want to provide it for.
We can never lose sight of the fact that a degree is a means to an end, not an end in an of itself. A Howard education must be deployed in search of truth and in service to people, to our society and to our nation.
I believe that this is what separates Howard from other colleges and universities, and what generally distinguishes HBCUs from our peers. Where other institutions might exist to help their students get a job, Howard exists to help our students change the world. Embedded deep into the DNA of our curricula is an orientation to serve.
When I first came to Howard, my mission was to find the cure for sickle cell. It was a disease that I had personally struggled with my whole life and an affliction that disproportionately affected people of color, adding yet another challenge to the lives of so many in the Black community that had to be overcome. I wanted to remove that obstacle in order to give Black people a better quality of life and a better chance of pursuing and reaching their dreams.
Since that initial articulation as a college student, my personal mission statement has undergone numerous revisions. In fact, it is still very much a work in progress.
The pursuit of a Howard education should be an eye-opening experience, one that helps our students better understand themselves and their chosen mission. But one’s driving purpose in life does not have to be settled by the time they leave our halls. I expect our students to have a clarified sense of purpose by the time they graduate, but they should always feel empowered to refine and reestablish their mission as their life progresses. That is why it behooves our students to pursue such breadth of education while they are on our campus. We never know what winding paths our lives may take, and it is to our benefit to learn as much as possible in as many subjects as we can so that we may be prepared to chase after new missions and seize new opportunities.
Now, when I have conversations with Howard students, I don’t ask them about their major – I ask them about their mission and how I can help them pursue it.