“Welcome to Baltimore, Maryland. We hope that you enjoyed your flight and that you choose us when you make plans for your next destination.”
Who knew those words would be the beginning of an amazing collegiate journey? I certainly didn’t. At the time I heard them, I was still an impressionable 17 year old, on her way to visit THE Howard University to see if the school they called the Mecca of Black Education would make me change my mind about attending either USC or University of Miami in the fall.
When I finally stepped off the plane, walking into this large airport, I was immediately keenly aware of how different if felt flying without my family. Suddenly, the whole world seemed to open up, and it felt like this was going to be a transformative trip. It was also kind of scary. Luckily, I had one of my friends from high school with me, but we also had the unenviable task of making our way from Baltimore to Washington, DC without a clue as to how to do so.
We eventually found out about and decided it was best to take the MARC train – a regional train that only cost $7 to get to the District. But, of course, that also meant we had to lug our bags as we ran through the airport to catch the next train. I was particularly happy I’d worn my blue and white New Balance tennis shoes (even though I didn’t really consider them very “me”) at that moment, because I would have been miserable with any of the shoes I’d considered my faves, attempting to clumsily clunk through the airport looking cute.
Funny enough, these same sneakers would end up being the shoes I wore the most while on our trip despite the fact that I’d managed to pack about five different pairs into my suitcase. And while they were great comfort wise (which is the main reason I wore them so much) while trying to traverse those hills at the school, when we stepped onto Howard’s campus, I knew just how much my shoe game would have to come up if I actually decided to attend the university.
It was a truly a sight to see! All around me, I saw history – buildings named after the men and women who fought and achieved as African-Americans in the United States and pictures of those same innovators and poets, protestors and free thinkers dressed to the nines. This history also shaped the present state of the campus, because in front of me, I also saw so many people with their own individual ways of expressing themselves through their footwear. Some wore designer heels and sneakers (!) even when walking on the Yard, while others wore more eclectic styles – stuff I’d never seen or heard of before but that definitely made me want to know more. You could also see the differences in what the people from varying regions of the country wore and the variety displayed in the shoes worn by the students who came to Howard internationally.
That was just the tip of the iceberg! I saw color combinations I’d never dreamed of putting together. I saw stilettos and platforms, sandals and loafers; and while the hipster thing wasn’t quite in fashion yet, I saw what I would call the beginnings of the trend on campus. But that was Howard, I would soon learn, a school full of diversity and expression, that thrived on both individual and communal displays of it, and prided itself on not just being the Mecca of Black Education, but the Mecca of Black Fashion as well.
And what did my New Balance tennis shoes say in the midst of all this? Nothing. They expressed not a thing.
I continued walking around that campus for days, looking at the men and women around me, admiring their intelligence and their spirit. And especially the way their style completely expressed who they were before they ever said a word – from their head to their shoes. On the last day of my visit, standing in the middle of the Yard and looking down at my New Balance shoes that had no spirit, no expression behind them, no feeling of “me,” I called my parents to tell them that I’d be attending Howard in the fall.
I’d realized in that short amount of time that I was part of the reason my shoes were so bleh, because I hadn’t found me yet. And I certainly hadn’t cultivated my own sense of style and expression. It was time to change that, though, and I knew Howard was going to be the place for me to begin that change.
I still remember that moment. I still remember knowing I’d never be the same because of that decision. And I also remember knowing that I was ready to toss those damn tennis shoes away as soon as I got back home.