The Portland Phoenix

Black Student Unions push to connect Portland students to historically Black colleges

A Black Student Union meeting at Casco Bay High School during the winter of the 2022-23 school year. (Portland Phoenix/Noemia Nzolameso)

A Black Student Union meeting at Casco Bay High School during the winter of the 2022-23 school year. (Portland Phoenix/Noemia Nzolameso)

Black Student Unions, or BSUs, in all three public high schools in the Portland district have been pushing lately to connect more students to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. 

Born out of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, a Black Student Union, or BSU, is an organization that advocates the needs of Black students while teaching, empowering, discussing and exploring Black experiences. They provide an opportunity for students of all races to celebrate Black culture, lifestyle and history while fighting for changes in their community and schools. Students see them as a sacred place, allowing Black students to be able to freely express who they are, talking about issues in the world and how to resolve them. [The author is a secretary for the Black Student Union at Casco Bay High School.)

Recently, there has been a movement from Portland BSUs to get representatives from HBCUs from all over the country to come visit Portland and talk to prospective students and give more information about their schools. 

“It’s a matter of them reaching out to us and that there are Black kids existing in a white populated place. Acknowledging us,” said Margret Valerio, a senior at Casco Bay High School and member and president of the BSU.

Many Black high school students like Valerio are interested in pursuing and experiencing the HBCU life. For many Black high school students, the goal of getting into an HBCU would be like having a BSU all around them, the safe, sacred feeling of being around those who look like you, understand you and want you to grow within your own culture. Many of these students struggle with having to change who they are to adapt to school life in Maine, the whitest state in the U.S.  

Lately, young students in Portland high schools are working with Portland Empowered, a local nonprofit that aims to ensure immigrant voices are reflected in school policy, in an effort secure funding toward a college fair specifically for HBCUs to send representatives to come here. Students have been raising awareness in their BSU meetings and to school counselors.

Lis Redwood, a director of youth programs at Portland Empowered, has worked closely with many high school students in the district, giving them the opportunity to thrive without having to change who they are. Redwood believes that students should do more outreach, but funding plays a role.

“If students take initiative to seek [HBCUs] out, then we will see a surge in enrollment. We have a commitment to support the institution that aided in equality,” Redwood said, adding that HBCUs offer an environment for Black students to thrive in communities they feel safe and to help each other with their own individual talents. 

Stephanie Doyle, a counselor at Casco Bay High School, is “totally supportive” of the student-led effort to bring HBCU representatives to Portland schools.

“Students know what they want and what they need and I kind of see my role as a support person helping students pursue their goals and dreams,” Doyle said. 

Along with fellow district counselors, multilingual interpreters and other staff in the district have been working with Portland Empowered to help connect students to HBCUs so they are able to get to know students from Portland individually. The hope is that they can learn what they value and bring to the community and to help put Portland as a whole on the map and help get students to attend HBCUs that lack little financial aid. 

A major obstacle that students face when considering attending an HBCU is the tuition cost. Some student members of BSU feel that HBCUs don’t provide enough information about financial aid for students who try to apply. Teachers are wary of encouraging students to attend colleges when they don’t see a financial aid package that makes sense for them.

“A young person attending college wants a college degree, but when they’re done they don’t want to be tied to a lot of student loans.” Doyle said.

Darby Mutagoma didn’t have much experience at a diverse school before attending Howard University, an HBCU in Washington D.C. Mutagoma, who lived in Maine and attended North Yarmouth Academy, a private high school, said that her high school experience didn’t present much diversity. 

“I think it’s extremely important for HBCU representatives to come to Portland, a city with a large community of black students, to encourage them to pursue the HBCU experience and education,” Mutagoma said. 

Noemia Nzolameso is a junior at Casco Bay High School. Nzolameso spent a week interning with the Phoenix from Jan. 3-9, where she learned the production process and worked to report this story from within her role as a member of the school’s Black Student Union.

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