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Leaving The Place That Nurtured Them: Howard Students Move On

Ursula M. Burns speaking at Howard University on May 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Ursula M. Burns speaking at Howard University on May 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

A year ago, NPR's Weekend Edition met four Howard University seniors. Ariel Alford, Taylor Davis, Kevin Peterman and Leighton Watson gave us a peek into life on the precipice of adulthood.

Now they've arrived.

Alford has spent the past few months as a student teacher in Washington, D.C., finishing her final requirement before getting her degree. Davis stayed in Washington too. Watson moved just a couple hours away, to Richmond, Va., where he works in finance.

Kevin Peterman.
/ Emily Jan for NPR
Kevin Peterman.

Peterman moved up the East Coast to Princeton University, where he's a graduate student in theology. He's one of the younger people in his program.

"I forget that I'm ... 22 because most of my classmates are much older than me," he says. "I'm engaging in conversations constantly about marriage, about Ph.D. work, about careers down the line, and I really do begin to forget, I just graduated from college."

Peterman is navigating an academic world that looks a lot different from Howard, one of the country's elite historically black colleges where the student population is 85 percent African-American. The Princeton Theological Seminary is 63 percent white.

"One of the first lessons I learned in my first week at Princeton was that I was as much student as I am teacher," he says. "Many people who come to this institution have not been exposed to African-Americans, and especially not African-American ministers or the African-American faith tradition. ... Sometimes it can become frustrating"

Taylor Davis.
/ Emily Jan for NPR
Taylor Davis.

He says his four years at Howard made him feel more secure in who he is and what he believes.

"When I was applying to Princeton, I was nervous about leaving the historical black college space and coming to an Ivy League seminary," Peterman says.

"It's only until I got there that I realized that I had been prepared better than most of my fellow African-American students who had gone to predominantly white institutions," he says. "They had been in an environment where they themselves were trying to study this thing we call black theology, and this place that we call the black church, by themselves in a vacuum, whereas I had gone to a historically black college, where that was the center of our focus, where that was our context."

Taylor Davis also thinks Howard prepared her well — in a different way. She didn't pass one of her nursing classes last year so she couldn't graduate with her friends.

"I do think there is something to be said about being in a place where everyone looks like you, and everyone wants the best for you," she says. "Especially for undergrad."

At Howard, Davis learned how to fail and get back up again. She learned how to check her ego and do the work: She took the class again, and this time, she nailed it.

"When I got my scores back, when I tell you, I literally start screaming and I break out into praise and worship," she says.

Davis will travel before taking the nursing board exams this summer. She's also considering other long-term options, possibly law school.

"I actually took my LSAT last year, so we're going to see where it leads me," she says. "I mean, the power of possibilities, that's been my mantra ever since I learned I was going to be in school an extra year. I feel like God gave that quote to me. There's power in your possibilities. And for me what that means is you literally control your destiny and you have the ability to do great and miraculous things if only you would believe that."

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