At HBCU, ‘We were embraced, celebrated, and encouraged to achieve’
Gigi Dixon, Wells Fargo’s head of External Engagement, reflects on her time at Tennessee State University and how historically Black colleges and universities continue to empower students to be civic-minded leaders and to take control of their destinies.
As we celebrate and honor the great achievements of African Americans during Black History Month, it is fitting to reflect on what it means to be Black in America. I will never forget how my mother insisted that I attend a historically Black university after graduating from high school in Greenville, South Carolina. She was proud of the scholarship I received to attend Northwestern University and even allowed me to visit the campus in Evanston, Illinois. All the while, however, my mom never intended for me to enroll at Northwestern, where I would likely succeed but not embrace my ethnicity while learning about Black history and the rich legacy of African Americans.
Mom wanted me to continue my education in an environment surrounded by Black excellence and unapologetic Black leadership, nurtured and encouraged by an educational community known for preparing young African Americans to achieve in all disciplines and against all odds. She knew that I would thrive at a historically Black college or university, or HBCU, with a smaller setting of faculty, staff, and administrators who would know my name, care for my health and safety, and invest in a holistic educational experience to develop me for a successful career. And that is how I ended up at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
One of my fondest memories of college was meeting and getting to know TSU alumnus Dr. Levi Watkins, a cardiac surgeon who created and implanted the automatic defibrillator. I was honored to follow in Dr. Watkins’ footsteps as TSU Student Government Association president, an achievement that allowed me to become a part of TSU’s history while developing leadership, policy, negotiation, and administrative skills that I may not have had the opportunity to develop as a student in a massive ecosystem like Northwestern University.
At TSU, I found my passion in radio and television, media, and public relations, and I discovered my deep compassion for people, human rights, and social justice. Because of the uniqueness of the HBCU experience — where Black students are in a community without the pressures of being an ethnic minority, socially disconnected, or stereotyped based on race — we were embraced, celebrated, and encouraged to achieve.
“Looking back, I learned that as a Black woman in America, I am powerful and capable of achieving my goals and dreams if I am willing to ‘enter to learn and go forth to serve.’” — Gigi Dixon
Looking back, I learned that as a Black woman in America, I am powerful and capable of achieving my goals and dreams if I am willing to “enter to learn and go forth to serve.” That was our motto at TSU, which today simply says, “Think. Work. Serve.” We were living in a microcosm of the world. And, as such, we were encouraged to be civic-minded leaders and to take control of our destiny, making decisions and performing actions that would clear the path for high achievement. I learned the importance of preserving and promoting the HBCU legacy as a student and as a leader on campus and in the Nashville community.
At Wells Fargo, I am proud to work with leaders who understand, appreciate, and invest in higher education and the legacy of HBCUs. Wells Fargo’s long-standing support of the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and member HBCUs is inspiring for me and many of my colleagues. It has allowed us to work directly with these college funds, engage with HBCU students through internships, mentor in financial health programs, and serve as HBCU trustees and donors. I am honored to be able to participate in Wells Fargo’s commitment to invest in higher education scholarships for deserving students who, like me, want to change the world.
2020 was a devastating year for many who have suffered loss resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and for those of us who were reminded of more than 400 years of racial inequity, systemic oppression, violence, and the disparate impact of health, environmental, and economic crisis on the Black community. And yet, we as African Americans draw strength from our belief that like our ancestors, we too can survive and overcome.
Reflecting on my time at TSU, being Black in America, and my profound HBCU experience reminds me of the importance of sharing our perspectives and our journey, and inviting others to join in a movement to heal and reveal a path forward toward justice, equity, and opportunity for all people.