|Dr. Allison M. Smith|
Picture it: a beautiful, warmer than average August Monday, with the smell of a long summer in the air. The year is 2004 and I had just stepped onto the campus (“the strip” to be exact) of Southern University and A&M College, as a loquacious and optimistic freshman ready to take on the world. A unique and distinguishing feature of Southern University is that it is one of the nation’s 107 HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and boasts being the only HBCU system in the world. It was on that campus that I would be introduced to the world that I now know as prevention by the awesome faculty in the Department of Psychology.
The reason why I didn’t know that what I was doing at the time was prevention, or even peer educator activities, was because the concepts were never presented to me in that kind of formal capacity. What was presented to me was the opportunity to care about my community and the idea of collectivism: that the success of my friends was critical to my own success and that it was a shared goal. What also was presented was the overall connectedness of substance use, sexual health, and mental health – and that they were all interconnected.
I vividly remember faculty members taking prevention concepts such as bystander intervention and identifying the signs of alcohol poisoning and explaining them in a way that made sense to my friends and me (over free pizza, of course), rooted in community and collectivism. Part of the reason we listened intently was that we respected them as elders – and in lots of cases even family – beyond their institutional employment.
Now as I work on substance misuse prevention with campuses through the Louisiana Higher Education Coalition, funded by the Louisiana Department of Health, including all six of Louisiana’s HBCUs, I have had the opportunity to observe various substance use trends across campus types. One thing that remains consistent, not only in our statewide data but also in national research, is that Black students at HBCUs tend to use substances less, particularly alcohol. After having worked with our coalition for the past 10 years, I have garnered anecdotal stories from each of our HBCU campuses – also supported in national research – as to why Black students at HBCUs tend to use substances less.
Here are three common themes that have emerged:
The influence of fictive kinship
The use of the term fictive kinship here focuses on the close, interpersonal relationships that are not limited just to blood relatives. It is a common theme for HBCUs to tout proudly their family-like culture as a reason for students to attend their institutions. Given that the students, faculty, and staff tend to be from similar backgrounds, fictive kinship practices such as “othermothering” become the norm, where students routinely value the input and advice of campus employees they regard as elders. For example, it is very common for every employee at an HBCU to be addressed by some kind of “handle” – whether that is doctor, Mr., Mrs., Miss, or professor, for instance – as a matter of practice in deference to his or her seniority. The conversations can range from what classes to take, how to make a certain cultural staple dish, revisions on assignments, local hairstylist recommendations, to reminding students they are ultimately there to graduate – to even pulling them to the side to say, “What’s up? You good?” if they’re concerned about a student’s substance use habits.
The impact of religiosity
At the Louisiana Board of Regents, we are charged with the coordination of all public higher education, while also closely working with our state’s private institutions in the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities – under which two of our HBCUs (Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana) fall. Dillard University (adhering to the Christian principles of its founding) and Xavier University of Louisiana (the nation’s only Catholic HBCU) are both explicitly religiously affiliated institutions. The incorporation of religious and spiritual concepts at HBCUs, whether explicitly tied to the institution’s mission or not, is very common – especially in the south. Research has shown that religious affiliation and participation is often a driving, protective factor in the decision-making of Black students when it comes to their substance use or abstinence.
The desire for culturally competent interventions/strategies
No matter what point one may be at in using the Strategic Prevention Framework, the one constant across the process is the need for cultural competence. Fortunately, our understanding of just having the ability to serve diverse persons (cultural competence) has also evolved to provide practitioners with the concepts of cultural humility and cultural responsiveness. HBCU students, as well as other members of the campus community, are unlikely to connect with messaging that lacks representation. Practicing cultural humility when designing intervention strategies at HBCUs is more likely to produce a program or campaign that connects with students in a way strong enough to change behaviors. (Note: If you have ever considered a campus-wide intervention strategy at an HBCU and have never considered the thought of including their marching band…well, you should.) Cultural responsiveness, or the ability to understand and learn from other cultures, will be an added skill set as programming at HBCUs – for prevention strategies or otherwise – relies heavily on the quickly, ever-evolving topics in popular Black culture.
Understanding the important influence of family in the context of fictive kinship, religiosity, and cultural competence when seeking to create and implement intervention strategies at HBCUs (and even for Black students at non-HBCUs) will be key to the success of your selected intervention strategies. Always strive to remember that, although everyone may possess the same or similar data set and select similar intervention strategies, we should allow space and flexibility for diversity of implementation while maintaining core concepts for efficacy.
American Counseling Association. (2015). Alcohol Abuse, Why Not an Issue for African American College Students? VISTAS Online: Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2015 . https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-subject2/vistas-substance-abuse/docs/default-source/vistas/alcohol-abuse-why-not-an-issue-for-african-american-college-students
Kapner, D. A. (2008, July 31). Alcohol and Other Drug Use at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Infofacts/Resources. Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED537617
Spruill, I. J., Coleman, B. L., Powell-Young, Y. M., Williams, T. H., & Magwood, G. (2014).
Non-Biological (Fictive Kin and Othermothers): Embracing the Need for a Culturally Appropriate Pedigree Nomenclature in African-American Families. Journal of National Black Nurses' Association: JNBNA, 25(2), 23–30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4847537/
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, September). 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: African Americans. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt31099/2019NSDUH-AA/AfricanAmerican%202019%20NSDUH.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (ED). (1991, March). Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Higher Education Desegregation. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/hq9511.html#:~:text=Today%2C%20there%20are%20107%20HBCUs,are%20public%20colleges%20and%20universities
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Behavioral Health Equity, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, April). The Opioid Crisis and the Black/African American Population: An Urgent Issue. https://store.samhsa.gov/product/The-Opioid-Crisis-and-the-Black-African-American-Population-An-Urgent-Issue/PEP20-05-02-001
Dr. Allison Smith is the Program Administrator for the Louisiana Center at its new home, the Louisiana Board of Regents. In this role, Allison facilitates the Louisiana Higher Education Coalition, administers the statewide Core Survey, provides professional development training, facilitates campus-community partnerships, and provides technical assistance around substance use prevention in Louisiana’s colleges. She also supports the campus safety-related policy initiatives of the Louisiana Board of Regents. Allison’s experience includes internships with both Nurse Family Partnership and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Dr. Smith, a native of Baton Rouge, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern University in 2009, a master’s degree in public administration from Louisiana State University in May 2011, followed by a doctoral degree in educational leadership, research, and counseling with a specialization in higher education administration in 2016.
 Dillard University, Grambling State University, Southern University, Southern University at New Orleans, Southern University at Shreveport, and Xavier University of Louisiana