Not too long after the accidental success of our first Xavier University Alumni design I got the inspiration to create a Hillman Alumni version. Hulu had just announced it would be carrying the entire series of A Different World, news that sent me and fellow stans of the classic TV show in a (not-so) temporary frenzy.
Around the same time the Twitter handle @HillmanGrad stumbled across my timeline. It looked familiar; we used to follow each other back during the height of my music days in New Orleans. Why we stopped I can’t remember. (I had no chill back then, Vans glued to my soapbox, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she jumped shipped first and remembering who I was in my immediate post-college days I wouldn’t blame her.)
The bottom line is she and her epic Twitter name popped back up and her username alone prompted the natural stalker researcher in me to do some digging. Lena Waithe. Screen writer, producer, show creator, loyal fan of A Different World.
The response to the design got me thinking: What does it mean to be Hillman Alum?
What’s the significance? Why were people, many of whom weren’t even born when A Different World premiered, connected to this fictitious college? Waithe contends, “There’s something timeless about the show because it’s a human experience. Even if you didn’t go to an HBCU…we all know what it feels like to be away from our families for the first time.” She adds, “The characters were also very dynamic and unique. Not only do you relate to them, but you want to be like them. That’s a rare combination.”
Waithe brings up a good point. Initially I categorized it as an HBCU thing, even claiming, “Hillman is like the ultimate HBCU!” That is until PWI graduates started commenting and ordering. Now I really needed to know.
So I started asking questions. “It’s a thing. It’s totally a thing. Right?” I asked Tiffany. “It’s definitely a thing,” my best friend responded. What I quickly discovered was that “thing” was a different thing for everybody.
For Lena Waithe it means that, at the very least, “You were an avid viewer of A Different World. It means you learned about HBCUs by watching the show. It means you wanted to be an art history major because that was Whitley Gilbert’s path in life. It means you grew up with the students of Hillman College.”
The fact that we grew up with the students of Hillman is definitely something I’m pretty sure we all agree on. You can’t tell me I didn’t go to school with Denise Huxtable, crack jokes in class with Ron, get tutored in my worst subject by Dwayne Wayne after unsuccessfully avoiding Dr. War’s class, discuss life philosophy with Lena James, get advice from Jaleesa and spend my first Thanksgiving away from home with Kim because it was just too expensive to go home and turn right back around after such a short break. Actually, I’m pretty sure I just described my first year at Xavier in New Orleans.
Many note they wanted to go to an HBCU for that Black college experience, the one depicted in ADW. And if you actually ended up at an HBCU, unless that HBCU was Xavier, you probably got the typical Black college experience you were looking for, at least in part. Meanwhile I’m sitting here in my “Undefeated Football” t-shirt still wondering.
Every person I’ve heard speak of Hillman agrees the portrayal of Black collegiates, fly and educated, served or serves as inspiration. When asked how influential ADW was for her, Waithe replied, “It’s the biggest influence. I saw that show and saw everything I wanted to be. The characters were young, black, fly, and super smart. Whitley, Kim, and Freddie were my first role models. I didn’t know it then, but I was also learning a lot about writing. The show was so well written – that’s one of the reasons it still holds up.”
I then asked if ADW and Hillman influenced her decision-making when choosing a college. “I definitely wanted to go to an HBCU because of ADW,” she said. “I wound up landing at Columbia College Chicago because I wanted to study writing/producing in Television and I wasn’t ready to leave Chicago just yet.”
You’ll hear this a lot; most admit wanting to go to an HBCU or at the very least learning of HBCUs because of Hillman. For some that’s where the connection ends – inspiration.
For others, like myself, being an alumnus of Hillman College categorizes you and provides you a label – a proudly adorned label – as someone who is more than just a college graduate.
For me being Hillman Alum is a state of mind. Immediately I associate terms like, “conscious” and “aware” to the status, maybe even “enlightened.” Let’s be honest, it is about status as well. Except for our classic “Undefeated Football” t-shirt (we don’t have a football team), all of my XU gear says, “Xavier Alumni.” Fellow alumni and I often joke (but we’re also dead serious) that we didn’t spend four years earning these degrees to not have “Alumni” on our paraphernalia.
Wearing my alumni gear is important to me for the same reasons I make sure something other than Hip Hop or R&B is playing in my car when my nephews and niece are with me and for the same reasons I wear a tie nearly every day, especially Monday-Friday around my high school students. Visibility. When the older white lady sitting across from me in the waiting area of my hematologist’s office, unable to hide her pleasant surprise, asks if I actually graduated or when I’m standing in line at Walgreens and a mother sees my Xavier Alum crewneck, confirms I’m alum, tells me her daughter was recently accepted and asks for advice, I know I’m not crazy for this logic.
But we all know that a college degree isn’t an indicator of intelligence; Alumni status can really only account for education and experience, and depending on the school listed on your diploma and/or your GPA – work ethic. It doesn’t count for naïveté, open or closed-mindedness, cross-cultural knowledge, sub-culture awareness, ignorance or general cluelessness about topics not directly related to your own upbringing and life experiences up to that point. And for me, these are factors that determine your Hillman Alumni status.
I graduated from Hillman almost a full four years after I graduated from Xavier. Prior to this I thought I knew a lot. After all, I’d “joined the ranks of the educated.” I was well rounded, cultured; I had some letters on my chest and a wealth of brand new information with which to navigate the world. Young, gifted and Black, you couldn’t tell me much. In fact, I was schooling others. That is until I was thrown on the fast track to awareness in the summer of 2012 after playing SF Pride’s main stage with my band. It was there and then that I met someone who would spark the catalyst to consciousness. I had no clue just how clueless I really was.
Inadequacy and incompetence are intolerable so I worked as fast as I humanly could, taking in everything my brain would hold, pulling my friends along for the ride whether they wanted to go or not. I was enrolled in Hillman’s accelerated program, determined to graduate as soon as possible. And what I found when I graduated was that I wanted more. I’ve never wanted more school. I’ve dreaded and despised school since the 5th grade. But here I was asking questions, doing research, writing essays and leading group discussions willingly and enthusiastically. I barely recognized myself. Which is why when I started watching A Different World on Hulu it almost seemed like a brand new show with small, regular doses of nostalgic familiarity. I was a student of life and Hillman College was my chosen institution of higher learning.
At least Hillman College was symbolic of that. I finally began to understand why Hillman is every Black person’s favorite college.
Since graduating from Hillman I understand my Blackness differently; I understand I wasn’t previously “color blind” like I thought and it isn’t that I forget that I’m Black, just that I every now and then I forget what it means to be Black in America. Post graduation I finally understood why it never felt right when others compared LGBTQ+ civil rights issues to Black civil rights issues and I could finally unpack and articulate those feelings. Finally, I understood why my old music mentor was so insistent on the fact that Black people can’t be racist and why he shook his head in disappointment every time my college friends and I argued that we could. I spent 20+ years as a Black person in America (much of that in private schools as the token), four years at a historically Black college and I didn’t actually understand racism.
After talking with a number of people, asking them what it means to be Hillman Alum and various other related questions, I knew I wasn’t alone in these thoughts and feelings.
A Different World and Hillman College are as much staples of Black culture as R&B, Blues, Hip Hop, twerking, soul food, Obama, AfAm rhetoric/Black Vernacular, Boyz N the Hood, School Daze, Do the Right Thing and just about every other Spike Lee joint, basketball, Billie Holiday, Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, quoting The Color Purple, defending Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson against defaulters, talking shit in barbershops and gossiping in hair salons, choosing HBCUs over PWIs (even though we got accepted into both) because we know we can succeed highly at either, and refusing to buckle under the burden of representation are.
Indeed being Hillman Alum is about much more than being a fan of a television series, it’s a much bigger thing than that. The best part is you get to define that thing for yourself. There’s no right or wrong answer. So, in your opinion, what does it mean to be Hillman Alum?
MJ: Being a Hillman Alum means you’ve beaten the stereotypes. It’s so hard living in a world that makes you feel like everyone is against you. That you mean nothing. You are nothing. Then you find a group which proves all of that to be false.
BS: Beating the odds of what society thought African Americans couldn’t do. Proving to myself that I am just as worthy of all that life had to offer just like everybody else.
BP: Being a Hillman Alum means taking the love you’ve fostered for your school, your culture, and your heritage at your University and using that love to impact the world around you positively.
WHY HAS HILLMAN COLLEGE & A DIFFERENT WORLD SURPASSED GENERATIONS?
MJ: It’s surpassed generations because so many people can relate. Each character represented someone who acted like our friends, family members and even ourselves. Nowadays, you don’t see too many influential shows. ADW is something this generation can grasp and still relate to today.
BS: Because it’s something that all generations can relate to. The topics of the episodes and the way they portray HBCUs is something that can never be redone.
CW: ADF showed Black students in a collegiate setting discovering themselves. Black students across generations can identify with this coming of age narrative because our marginalization still heavily affects our education. HILLMAN connected us all to communities and further validated our legacy.
BP: Because the message and the problems were inter-generational. They addressed issues such as AIDS, drug abuse, and apartheid, which are still more or less present in some way. Also, they portrayed different sides of the black college experience and the struggles of finding yourself and your identity during your college years which is always relatable…plus you know Heathcliff and Claire Huxtable went there.
BS: Yes it was because I wanted to go to a school that I could have that experience at. I wanted to go make friends with people that were like me and learn to broaden my horizon and step out the box and make friends that weren’t like me. I wanted that black college experience.
BP: Yeah, it was one of the things that made me want to go to an HBCU (even though I went to a PWI ultimately) because it made the experience look fun. Plus, i spent the majority of my life believing it was a real school.
FAVORITE CHARACTER FROM A DIFFERENT WORLD:
CW: Lena & Freddie.
BP: Think my favorite character was some combo of Dwyane/Whitley.
CHARACTER YOU’RE MOST LIKE/RELATE TO MOST:
MJ: Jaleesa Vinson Taylor
BP: I most relate to Lena because she’s all radical and militant. Even though she sometimes does a bit too much and is a little too proud for her own good, at the heart of it all is a love for her people and her community.
LW: I actually relate to Lena James a lot. She’s a girl that came from humble beginnings, but was determined not to be the sum of her circumstances.
WHEN DID YOU GRADUATE FROM HILLMAN & WHAT WAS YOUR MAJOR?
MJ: Psychology; 2012
BS: May 2011, Chemistry
CW: I graduated from Hillman in 2002. I had a double major in Sociology and Creative Writing.
BP: Not sure how to answer this one, bc I want to answer 1997 but you know, i was 7 then. My major was Sociology.
LW: I graduated from Hillman College in 2006. And I was an English major. Just like Lena James.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF HILLMAN ALUM?
MJ: I do. When I look around at my friends and family members, I can honestly feel like I said “I’ve made it.” I’ve beaten the stereotypes and I’m ready to pull others up with me.
CW: HELL YES.
BP: Yes, because although the school’s not real, the principles and virtues that the school was built on are great for any person to carry through life.
I ALSO ASKED LENA WAITHE THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
WHY @HILLMANGRAD (your brand)?
I’m not just a fan of the show, it literally changed the course of my life. I knew by watching that show that I wanted to be a television writer. So when I was thinking of a Twitter and IG handle I thought it would be cute to call myself @HillmanGrad and folks took to it immediately. I loved that some people knew what it meant, while others thought it was a real college. If you got it, great. You were one of the cool kids. If not, so what.
YOU’VE BEEN INVITED BACK TO HILLMAN AS A GUEST LECTURER, WHAT’S THE TOPIC/SUBJECT OF YOUR LECTURE SERIES?
LW: I would want to talk about the images of our people in the media and how we have to hold our art to a much higher standard.
DO YOU HAVE TO BE AN HBCU ALUM TO BE CONSIDERED A HILLMAN ALUM?
Absolutely not. But you should be able to name all the main characters from the show.
Add your two cents to the conversation by answering the questions in the comments below!