When Shanelle Smith taught English to 8th graders at University Academy in Kansas City, MO, most of her students did not know much about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). If they did know anything about the 100 plus year-old institutions, their knowledge was usually very limited and based upon what they’d seen in movies. 

With just two HBCUs within 300 miles of Kansas City -- Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City -- Smith understood their limited knowledge and it was something she set out to change. 

“We are not situated in very close proximity to most HBCUs and many college and career advisors aren't aware of the opportunities at HBCUs,” said Smith. 

Change, she said, would need to be deliberate and targeted. 

“There has to be some intentionality that there are options beyond Kansas and Missouri where the vast majority of the student population looks like you and maybe even produce the highest number of African Americans within a certain field,” she said.

Smith is a graduate of an HBCU. Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, TN, is where she developed her love for education.  She’s spent the past 17 years as an educator and is currently the associate principal at African Centered Prep at Southeast High School.

Since her students had limited knowledge of HBCUs, Smith decided to introduce the more than 100 HBCUs to them. She would have alumni panels speak to students and during Black History Month, she would highlight a different HBCU each day, while repping the school’s colors and t-shirt.

Smith wanted to expand awareness of, and subsequently attendance at, HBCUs to students outside of her classroom.  So, in 2015 she founded the nonprofit HBCU Walking Billboard to support current HBCU students from Kansas City and to continue to educate students in Kansas City Public Schools about HBCUs.

HBCU Walking Billboard has two programs: HBCU Rookies and HBCU Prospects.

HBCU Rookies

The rookies are students who are currently attending or registered to attend an HBCU.

HBCU Walking Billboard hosts an annual summer send-off for rookies, ahead of their fall semester, where they are awarded scholarships and care packages.

This year, thanks to donations and HBCU Walking Billboard t-shirt sales, HBCU Walking Billboard was able to give more than $15,000 in scholarships to rookies.

Rookies also have a chance to be paired up with an HBCU alumni for mentorship.

Tenesha Carter-Johnson, a sophomore at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA and an HBCU Rookie said she did not know much about HBCUs until her English teacher, one of the only Black educators at her school Sumner Academy of Arts and Science, inspired her to start applying to them.

After becoming involved with HBCU Walking Billboard, her commitment to attending an HBCU solidified.

“HBCU Walking Billboard is an organization that is so necessary for students, especially students of color. It's important that they know there is a community that is supporting them every step of their journey,” Carter-Johnson said. “Knowing that there are people back home that see your potential and your efforts and continue to encourage you, we need more organizations like that, especially for students who are marginalized.”

Carter-Johnson said Smith stays in contact with the rookies, checking in on their HBCU experience.

“That’s so important because there are not any HBCUs close to Kansas City, so a lot of students are far away from home.  I’m 12 hours away,” she said. “Having people who check on me, ask me how I'm doing academically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually has helped me so much.”

HBCU Prospects

The new HBCU Prospects three-year cohort program began in early September in partnership with Kansas City Public Schools. The current cohort is made up of 33 students from Lincoln College Prep, Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, Southeast High School, East High School and Central High School who applied for the program in their second semester of their freshman year.

The students meet monthly during the school day, where they learn about HBCUs, why they exist, the struggles they’ve endured and what they have to offer.  They also go on HBCU college tours and receive college application and college admissions test preparation assistance. HBCU Prospects are also matched with a rookie mentor.

The Prospects will also complete an HBCU museum experience project for Kansas City community members to visit. Each student will apply, interview and be assigned a real role in the museum. HBCU Walking Billboard is partnering with the Black Archives of Mid-America to help students with research and to host the exhibit.

The project will be open to the public May 5, 2022 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Smith hopes that at the conclusion of the students’ three-year experience, Prospects will average a 21 composite score on the ACT and all will have applied to and been accepted into at least one HBCU.

“I'm hoping the HBCU Prospects come out of the program with the understanding that whether they choose to attend an HBCU or not, the time they spent with us was valuable because they gleaned something they can utilize toward their own college experiences or their future career,” Smith said.

Smith plans to expand the program’s reach to the entire Kansas City metro.

The HBCU Prospects will be taking trips to tour Harris-Stowe, Lincoln and Langston University over the course of the semester. Funding for those trips and scholarships come from grants, t-shirt sales and donations. To donate, visit their website: https://www.hbcuwalkingbillboard.com/.

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