KC nonprofit working to teach more students about HBCUs, promote attendance

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Across the country, there are more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but many students never learn about them until after they have chosen where to go to college.

But a Kansas City-based group is working to change that.

The goal of HBCU Walking Billboard is to encourage students to attend these colleges and support them while they’re in school. 

The walking billboards are graduates who’ve paved the way for students like William Powell, who’s a senior at Jackson State University, an HBCU. As a middle school student in Kansas City, he learned about JSU through the rookie program with HBCU Walking Billboard. 

“Once I took my visit, it was like a home away from home,” Powell said. “So we were taught and learned about [HBCUs] early. So once it was time to look at colleges and universities, these were the schools that we had in mind.” 

HBCUs were created before Black students could attend predominately white colleges. Now, the institutions graduate the majority of African Americans with baccalaureate degrees. Various HBCUs also offer law schools and medical schools. 

Shanelle Smith is a Fisk University grad and an associate principal at Southeast High School. She founded HBCU Walking Billboard. The nonprofit partners with schools across the metro to spread awareness and encourage attendance. 

“In Kansas City we only hear about big schools and local schools. We don’t really get a lot of exposure to historically black colleges because of where we are located,” Smith said. “So the need for our organization is pretty evident.” 

Since the program began in 2015, it has already supported dozens of students. Smith plans to expand the program to reach more students who could benefit. 

“We’re launching our HBCU prospects program, which will be a 3-year cohort,” Smith said. “So from their sophomore year to their senior year they would go through college and career planning and programming, and then from there, preferably, they will choose to go to an HBCU.” 

Smith said the majority of her students reach out to find internships in the Kansas City area in their particular field of study. Students who get internships in the city often come back to work full-time. 

In the spring, Powell will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering this year. 

“I actually have a job offer that accepted with Burns & McDonnell here in Kansas City, and I’ll be working in the water group starting in June,” Powell said. 

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